For the past year, the Obama administration has been criticizing Russia for selling weapons to Syria and blocking the United Nations from condemning the conflict that’s killed more than 10,000 people. Yet at the same time, the U.S. has been buying military helicopters from an unlikely source: the same Russian-government-owned company that Congress says is arming the Syrian regime. Since May 2011, the Pentagon has paid Rosoboronexport $411 million for 21 Mi-17 helicopters.
Now some U.S. lawmakers are saying the sales must stop. “We should not be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to support a firm that is arming a regime in Syria that’s murdering innocent men, women, and children,” says Representative Rosa DeLauro. The House recently passed an amendment sponsored by the Connecticut Democrat that would ban future contracts with the company.
The U.S. buys weapons and military supplies from defense contractors around the world—ships from Australia, airplanes from Italy, combat vehicles from Britain—with little objection from Congress. The lawmakers say that doing business with Russia is different, given the complicated relationship between the two countries. From 2006 to 2010 the U.S. barred deals with Rosoboronexport because it allegedly sold arms to dictatorships, including Iran. The U.S. lifted the ban after Russia agreed to support U.N. sanctions against Iran in May 2010.
The Pentagon didn’t solicit bids from any other company for the helicopters. That “seems just plain stupid,” says Texas Senator John Cornyn, one of nine Republican and eight Democratic senators pressing the U.S. Department of Defense to cancel the deal.
The choppers aren’t used by the U.S. military; the Defense Department turns them over to Afghanistan’s air force, which has flown the Mi-17s since the early 1980s. James N. Miller, an Under Secretary of Defense, told Cornyn, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, in a March 30 letter that the helicopters function well in “the extreme environments of Afghanistan” and are easy for the Afghans to operate due to their “low technical complexity,” making them a “key” part of the U.S.’s Afghanistan exit strategy. Frank Kendall, another Under Secretary of Defense, wrote Cornyn on July 27, that “at this time the Department has not been able to identify a viable alternative to the Mi-17.” Twelve days before, the Pentagon placed a $171 million order with Rosoboronexport for 10 additional choppers.
John Pike, director of national security think tank GlobalSecurity.org, says Russia sold Mi-17s to other countries during the Cold War, and that companies other than Rosoboronexport should have secondhand models that could be refurbished: “The notion that you can’t come up with a couple dozen of these puppies in the used helicopter market is hard to believe.” With the Senate unlikely to take up the House’s ban on contracts with Rosoboronexport before the election, Cornyn says he’s now trying a different tactic: blocking the confirmation of Heidi Shyu, President Obama’s nominee to be the assistant defense secretary in charge of buying weapons for the U.S. Army. Says Cornyn: “There seems to be no appetite at all to send a message that their conduct in Syria is wrong.”