WASHINGTON (AP) — The deal looked sketchy from the start.
To outfit Afghanistan’s security forces with new helicopters, the Pentagon bypassed U.S. companies and turned instead to Moscow for dozens of Russian Mi-17 rotorcraft at a cost of more than $1 billion.
Senior Pentagon officials assured skeptical members of Congress that the Defense Department had made the right call. They repeatedly cited a top-secret 2010 study they said named the Mi-17 as the superior choice.
Turns out the study told a very different story, according to unclassified excerpts obtained by The Associated Press.
An American-made helicopter, the U.S. Army’s workhorse Chinook built by Boeing in Pennsylvania, was found to be “the most cost-effective single platform type fleet for the Afghan Air Force over a twenty year” period, according to the excerpts.
Lawmakers who closely had followed the copter deal were stunned.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 GOP leader and one of the most vocal critics of the contract, said the Department of Defense “repeatedly and disingenuously” used the study to prove the necessity of buying Mi-17s.
“So why are we buying Russian helicopters when there are American manufacturers that can meet that very same requirement?” Cornyn asked. “Makes no sense whatsoever and the Department of Defense has steadfastly refused to cooperate with reasonable inquiries into why in the world they continue to persist along this pathway.”
As recently as September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter cited the study in a letter to House members defending the decision. Carter left his job this past week.
The Pentagon denies it misled Congress.
Why, lawmakers from both political parties have demanded, is the U.S. purchasing military gear from Russia?
“We’re not dealing with a corrupt system. Corruption is the system,” said Stephen Blank, a Russia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington think tank. “This is not a world we’re familiar with.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a high-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the arrangement has put American taxpayers in the intolerable position of subsidizing a company complicit in the atrocities occurring in Syria.
“The lack of straightforward information from the Pentagon on the ability of American-made helicopters to meet the mission in Afghanistan is but another factor severely undermining their credibility and justification for pursuing this sorely misguided procurement,” DeLauro said.
No Pentagon official was made available to speak on the record for this story.
Boeing executives informed congressional staff during a meeting held in late September that the cost of a refurbished CH-47D would be in the $12 million to $14 million range, according to a person knowledgeable about the discussion but not authorized to be identified as the source of the information.
That would make an overhauled Chinook $4 million to $6 million less than what the department is currently paying for Mi-17s, according to figures compiled by the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, the Pentagon office that fills urgent requests for equipment from battlefield commanders.
Boeing spokesman Andrew Lee referred questions about Chinook costs to the Defense Department.
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