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U.S. military criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps

With a larger offensive postponed, U.S. troops instead have been battling a corruption-ridden police force and the local government's apparent misgivings about taking on the Taliban.

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010

The U.S. government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of Afghanistan's fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American choppers instead.

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In a turnabout from the Cold War, when the CIA gave Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels to shoot down Soviet helicopters, the Pentagon has spent $648 million to buy or refurbish 31 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Defense Department is seeking to buy 10 more of the Mi-17s next year, and had planned to buy dozens more over the next decade.

(Photos: U.S. troops face challenges in Afghanistan)

The spectacle of using U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy Russian military products is proving a difficult sell in Congress. Some legislators say that the Pentagon never considered alternatives to the Mi-17, an aircraft it purchased for use in Iraq and Pakistan, and that a lack of competition has enabled Russian defense contractors to gouge on prices.

"The Mi-17 program either has uncoordinated oversight or simply none at all," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who along with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has pushed the Pentagon to reconsider its purchase plans. "The results have led to massive waste, cost overruns, schedule delays, safety concerns and major delivery problems."

U.S. and Afghan military officials who favor the Mi-17, which was designed for use in Afghanistan, acknowledge that it might seem odd for the Pentagon to invest in Russian military products. But they said that changing helicopter models would throw a wrench into the effort to train Afghan pilots, none of whom can fly U.S.-built choppers.

"If people come and fly in Afghanistan with the Mi-17, they will understand why that aircraft is so important to the future for Afghanistan," said Brig. Gen. Michael R. Boera, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of rebuilding the Afghan air corps. "We've got to get beyond the fact that it's Russian. . . . It works well in Afghanistan."

U.S. military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won't be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly U.S. choppers . "Is that what we really want to do?" he asked.

The U.S. military has been trying to resurrect the decimated Afghan National Army Air Corps since 2005, when it consisted of a few dozen furloughed pilots and a handful of decrepit Mi-17s.

Because Afghan airmen had historically trained on Russian choppers, the Pentagon decided to make the Mi-17s the backbone of Afghanistan's fleet. The Soviet Union specifically designed the Mi-17 for use in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say it is well-suited for navigating the altitudes of the Hindu Kush mountains, as well as Afghanistan's desert terrain.

With few reliable roads, helicopters are a primary mode of transport in Afghanistan. U.S. forces depend on them to deploy troops to isolated areas, provide them with supplies and airlift them out when they are wounded. Until recently, Afghan pilots have steered clear of combat but have used their Mi-17s to transport high-ranking Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai. U.S. officials hope the Afghan air corps eventually will be able to defend its own skies and serve the fast-growing Afghan National Army.

Afghans are also training on Mi-35 Russian-made attack helicopters and Italian-designed C-27s, a fixed-wing aircraft used to transport troops and supplies. The air corps has 48 aircraft and 3,300 personnel.


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