A Pentagon program to rush 21 helicopters to Afghan military forces in time for this summer’s fighting season was derailed by the Obama administration’s conciliatory policy toward Russia and by Army procurement missteps amid allegations of corruption, according to current and former defense officials and military contractors.
But eight other helicopters that were painted in Afghan National Army Air Corps colors are now sitting in a warehouse in Slovakia because their delivery was blocked last November by the Russian government. The reason: Moscow demanded the Pentagon use the state arms trader Rosoboronexport as the sole-source contractor for the helicopters.
The contract change boosted costs by tens of millions of dollars and delayed further deliveries until later this year, at the earliest, according to officials involved in the procurement.
“Gaining political points with the Russians trumped meeting military requirements, and as a result we have a one-year delay in getting aircraft into Afghanistan,” said John J. Young, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition under former President George W. Bush.
Mr. Young said he is encouraged that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ashton Carter, current undersecretary of defense for acquisition, are reviewing the delays.
“I think they want to see equipment delivered to the Afghan forces, so the Afghan government can assume greater responsibility for the security of their country,” Mr. Young said.
The 21 additional Mi-17s could have been purchased legally by private companies directly from the Russian manufacturer, like some 36 others purchased by the U.S. government in the past several years for Iraq and Pakistan, through U.S., Russian and East European brokers.
The reason private companies were used as middlemen was that U.S. companies until recently were barred from using Rosoboronexport, after the arms exporter was slapped with U.S. economic sanctions in 2008 for selling weapons to Iran and China.
The Obama administration in May lifted the sanctions as part of its so-called “reset” policy with Russia and opened the helicopter deal to Moscow’s bureaucratic red tape and corruption, according to officials involved with weapons procurement.
A 2008 cable from then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, currently awaiting confirmation as deputy secretary of state, said Russia ignores most U.S. protests about its weapons exports and uses arms sales to Iran, Syria and other rogue states to undermine U.S. interests.
“Russia attaches importance to the volume of the arms-export trade, to the diplomatic doors that weapon sales open, to the ill-gotten gains that these sales reap for corrupt senior officials, and to the lever it provides the Russian government in stymieing American interests,” Mr. Burns said in a secret cable made public by WikiLeaks.
“The Russian government’s decision did cause a delay, because it required us to restart the process,” he said. “However, the longest source of delays in terms of days has been working through the bid protests, some of which predate the Russian government’s decision.”