Daily Dispatches
Afghan air force engineers work on an Mi-17 helicopter
Associated Press/Photo by Dar Yasin
Afghan air force engineers work on an Mi-17 helicopter

Why is the U.S. buying Russian helicopters for Afghanistan?

Military

Lawmakers from both political parties are demanding to know why the United States is buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan security forces rather than American-made rotorcraft.

A top-secret Pentagon study, released in 2010, had recommended an American-made helicopter, according to unclassified excerpts obtained by the Associated Press. The excerpts show the U.S. Army’s workhorse Chinook, built by Boeing Co. in Pennsylvania, was “the most cost-effective single platform type fleet for the Afghan Air Force over a 20-year” period.

U.S. military officials have insisted that the study proved the need to buy Russian helicopters for Afghanistan’s security forces. They used it to justify a 2011 contract for dozens of Mi-17s at the cost of $16.4 million to $18.2 million each.

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Boeing executives informed congressional staff during a meeting held in late September that the cost of a refurbished Chinook would be in the $12 million to $14 million range, according to a person knowledgeable about the discussion but not authorized to be identified. That would make an overhauled Chinook $4 million to $6 million less expensive than what the department is currently paying for Mi-17s.

The Pentagon denies it misled Congress, pointing out that there are other factors besides cost to considered. The fact that the Afghan forces had years of experience flying the Mi-17 figured prominently in the Pentagon’s decision.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and other U.S. defense officials contended that adding the Boeing helicopter to the mix would unnecessarily burden the Afghans with having to learn how to operate and maintain an unfamiliar helicopter.

The 2010 study “specifically analyzed the opportunity for DOD to provide a U.S. alternative to the Mi-17 for Afghanistan,” according to the excerpts.

It outlined a transitional approach in which refurbished Chinooks would gradually replace older Russian helicopters in the Afghan fleet. A combination of Mi-17s and Chinooks could work as well. But the study advised caution. Shifting too quickly away from the Mi-17s already in use could undermine progress in training the Afghan air force, the excerpts said. An extensive Pentagon analysis of both helicopters concluded a refurbished Chinook would cost about 40 percent more overall to buy and maintain than the Russian helicopter, the senior defense official said, and the Chinook option never materialized.

But an internal Defense Contract Audit Agency document shows the department could not conduct a comprehensive cost comparison because Russia’s arms export agency wouldn't allow U.S. auditors to look at its books.

Last month, the Pentagon changed its mind. After reevaluating, officials decided to cut 15 copters out of the 78 they had planned to buy from Moscow.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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