Pentagon Stops Buying Helos from Russia for Afghanistan

In this May 13, 2013, file photo, an Mi-17 helicopter used by the Afghan Air Force sits on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Kristin M. Hall/APIn this May 13, 2013, file photo, an Mi-17 helicopter used by the Afghan Air Force sits on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Kristin M. Hall/AP

The Pentagon and the White House have relented and stopped doing business that evaded economic sanctions on Russia with the Kremlin-run arms firm supplying Russian Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan Air Force.

The $11.6 billion supplemental defense budget request recently sent by the White House to Congress reportedly included $264 million for UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, made by Sikorsky in Connecticut, rather than the Mi-17s supplied by Russia’s state-run Rosoboronexport.

Also last week, the office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the Defense Department now will supply more than 50 Black Hawks to the Afghan Air Force after years of lobbying by the Connecticut delegation.

The Afghan Air Force currently operates about 50 Mi-17s, according to IHS Jane’s.

The Pentagon had argued that Afghan pilots are more familiar with the Mi-17s, and that the Mi-17s are cheaper and easier to operate.

In a statement, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said the Pentagon had notified Congress that it would stop buying the Mi-17s. “I’ll never understand why the U.S. government sent taxpayer money to Russia for helicopters in Afghanistan while Russia was supporting the [President Bashar al-Assad] regime in Syria and invading eastern Ukraine,” Murphy said.

“We must prioritize American manufacturers and our hard-working men and women at home,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, another Connecticut Democrat who had long argued against the deal with Russia for the Mi-17s.

The Pentagon initially was so intent on getting more helicopters to the Afghan Air Force that the deal with Rosoboronexport was excluded from U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Crimea and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, the Treasury Department targeted the maker of AK-47 assault rifles and seven other Russian defense firms for sanctions but gave a pass to arms exporter Rosoboronexport, which had a $554 million contract with the U.S. to supply Mi-17s to the Afghans.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew left Rosoboronexport off the long list of Russian banks, firms and individuals hit by U.S. economic sanctions to counter Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, a Treasury spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman declined comment on whether Rosoboronexport was left off the list at the request of the Defense and State Departments.

In 2012, sixteen senators signed a letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta charging that the U.S. was being complicit in “mass murder” by dealing with Rosoboronexport. The reference was to the civilian death toll in Syria.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.