For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire gave out his Golden Fleece Awards. But they had nothing to do with Jason and Argonauts.
The late senator bestowed his mock trophies to highlight government waste. Were he alive today, the Pentagon would have just presented itself as a fine recipient. The Defense Department has earmarked more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to buy Swiss-built cargo airplanes and Russian-made helicopters for an Afghan aviation unit that lacks the personnel and training to operate and maintain the equipment.
According to a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, this means the helicopters and 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 Pentagon announced on June 17 that Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-run arms exporter, had been awarded a $554 million contract for 30 Mil Mi-17s. According to a DOD spokesman, there is an “urgent, near-term need” to buy the Mi-17s, designed to operate at high altitudes and uniquely suited for the Afghan wing.
In addition to the helicopters, the Pentagon is spending $218 million on 18 Pilatus PC-12 cargo airplanes from the Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., to allow the Special Mission Wing to fly counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics missions.
The special inspector general is recommending that the purchase be suspended until the wing’s staffing, recruiting and training problems are resolved. The wing was to have 806 personnel by mid-2015, but as of late January had just 180, according to the report.
Filling out the wing’s ranks won’t be easy, the report said, because of the challenges involved in finding Afghan recruits who are literate in their own language, competent in English and can pass the strict 18- to 20-month U.S. vetting process.
The flow of trainees from helicopter flight training at Fort Rucker Ala., to more intense training in the Czech Republic “has been slow and uneven, ranging from a low of two to up to eight trainees at a time,” according to the special inspector general. Another problem is the lack of pilots capable of flying at night, when most counter-terrorism missions are conducted. Only seven of the 47 pilots assigned to the wing were mission-qualified to fly with night-vision goggles.
Compensation, especially for mechanics, is another barrier to recruitment because Afghans with a basic command of English are in high demand and get higher pay elsewhere, the report explained.
Meanwhile here at home, sequestration has slashed some U.S. military flight training, the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels are grounded and Independence Day fireworks were canceled at several training bases on July 4.
Sen. Proxmire must be spinning in his grave