For years, it has been one of the world's stranger -- and uglier -- arms deals, blasted by good governance advocates and human rights activists on three continents. Now, the Pentagon and Russia's premier weapons dealer are finally breaking up, amid pressure from Capitol Hill and a possible criminal probe into the Army's controversial program to buy Russian helicopters for the Afghan air force.
The U.S. decided it will no longer buy Mi-17 helicopters, pictured above, from Moscow-based Rosoboronexport, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday. The Defense Department acknowledged it was ending the relationship with the Russian firm, but said that it would continue to deliver previously-purchased helos. The Pentagon initially requested money for more helicopters in its budget for 2014, but has backed off.
"The department has re-evaluated requirements in consultation with Congress," Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said in an email. "We currently do not have plans to purchase additional Mi17s from Rosoboronexport beyond those" already promised to Afghan forces.
The about-face by U.S. defense officials follows a wave of criticism from lawmakers and human rights advocates, who zeroed in on Rosoboronexport supplying weapons to the Syrian government as it waged a bloody civil war. The company announced earlier this year that it would sell a total of 63 helicopters to the United States for use by the Afghan military by the end of 2014. That will apparently be it, however.
The Pentagon also reportedly opened a criminal probe into the Mi-17 program this year after spotting irregularities in it. Investigators were examining potentially improper payments by the Army officials to contractors and possible conflicts of interest between them. The U.S. military has been making deals for for Russian helos for years. In 2008, for example, it gave a $325 million, no-bid contract to a Carlyle Group subsidiary for nearly two dozen of the Mi-17s.
In a statement, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was quick to praise the U.S. decision to "finally cancel" its deal with Rosoboronexport, saying the American military should not do anything that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is accused of killing tens of thousands of civilians and launching chemical weapons attacks.
"Doing business with the supplier of these helicopters has been a morally bankrupt policy, and as a nation, we should no longer be subsidizing Assad's war crimes," Cornyn said Wednesday.
The Pentagon had increasingly come under pressure to nix the deal. A bipartisan group of congressmen called Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel out in March, asking him in a letter to justify why the United States was buying 20 more helicopters from the arms dealer this year after already purchasing 33 Mi-17s from Rosoboronexport the year before.
"Russia continues to transfer weapons through Rosoboronexport to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria," said the March 25 letter to Hagel. "Since the Syrian uprising began, Russia has continued to serve as the Assad regime's chief supplier of weapons, enabling the mass murder of Syrian citizens at the hands of their own government."
The Pentagon had argued that the Mi-17 was uniquely suited to Afghanistan and the cheapest way to build an Afghan air force, which is still in fledgling phases a dozen years into U.S. operations there. Rosoboronexport announced Nov. 1 that it had recently delivered 12 more helicopters to Afghanistan as part of a 2012 contract with the United States. Before today, the company was scheduled to deliver 63 U.S.-funded helicopters to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Ties between the Russian company and U.S. officials have raised flags, however. In September, Cornyn joined seven other senators and 23 House members in calling for the Justice Department to investigate the Army's Mi-17 program, which bought an estimated $1 billion in helicopters and associated parts since 2011 from Rosoboronexport. The U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is also investigating.
"The prospect that American taxpayers have been made into unwitting victims of corruption demands special scrutiny," the lawmakers said in the Sept. 16 letter, sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "On a per aircraft basis, the Army is paying Rosoboronexport more than double what the Russian military itself is paying right now to buy nearly identical helicopters. These facts, taken with the news report, raise very serious questions about the Army's entire Mi-17 program, including whether the various contracts for procurement and overhaul were the products of criminal misconduct."
Rosobornexport sends about $13 billion in weapons across the globe annually. Its entire business portfolio includes more than $38 billion in contracts, including deals with China and Venezuela. Company officials have expressed interest in doing more business in southeast Asia, as well.
Sonni Efron of the organization Human Rights First said the United States will be better off when it has removed itself from Rosobornexport's customer list.
"It's not enough to slap sanctions on those who commit mass atrocities, the perpetrators," she said. "We have to look more closely at the companies that feed the supply chains of war, those who enable atrocities and other gross human rights violations by providing weapons, financing, insurance, surveillance technology and all the other material needed for repression. And that begins with making sure the U.S. government itself isn't rewarding such companies with contracts."