WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is spending more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to buy Russian-made helicopters and other aircraft for an Afghan aviation unit that lacks the troops and expertise to operate and maintain the equipment, a government watchdog warned.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report Friday these shortcomings mean the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft destined for the Afghan Special Mission Wing "could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of U.S. funds." The report recommended putting the purchases on hold until the Afghans develop the capacity to support the aircraft.
The findings are sure to reverberate on Capitol Hill, where there is stiff opposition to the purchase of the Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, the state-run Russian arms exporter that is a top weapons supplier to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Pentagon announced June 17 that Rosoboronexport had been awarded a $554 million contract for 30 Mi-17s to be used by the Special Mission Wing, a move that came just days after the House approved a 2014 defense policy bill that included a prohibition on contracts with the Russian agency. The Senate Armed Services Committee included a similar ban in its version of the bill.
The defense policy bill for 2013 also barred the Pentagon from using funds from that fiscal year for contracts with Rosoboronexport. But the Pentagon said money from the 2012 fiscal year was being used for the Mi-17 acquisition, so the restriction does not apply.
A Defense Department spokesman said there was an "urgent, near-term need" to buy the wing the Mi-17s, a multimission aircraft designed to operate at high altitudes and uniquely suited for the wing.
"Careful consideration of all the information available to the department confirms that it would be in the public interest to procure the Mi-17s needed for the (wing) from Rosoboronexport," Army Lt. Col. Jim Gregory said in a statement.