U.S. Will Buy No More Russian Helos for Afghans

 - December 13, 2016, 1:59 PM
An Afghan air force Mil Mi-17. The U.S. will replace them with former U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawks. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

The U.S. will not be buying any more Russian helicopters for the Afghan Army. The controversial program is officially over. The depleted fleet of 50 Russian Mi-17s that the U.S. bought for the Afghans will be replaced by a fleet of refurbished Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks under a budget amendment submitted to Congress. Parts for the Mi-17s have been hard to come by in the wake of U.S. and international sanctions against Russia following that country's annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Shortly thereafter, President Obama banned most dealings with Russian arms manufacturers, including state-owned Rostec, parent company of Mi-17 manufacturer Russian Helicopters. The native Afghan fleet was kept flying by obtaining parts from India, but harsh conditions and attrition meant the existing fleet was hard-pressed to meet local needs. And a Pentagon plan to add $1 billion worth of inventory to the U.S.-bought Mi-17 fleet in Afghanistan was dead on arrival in Congress as early as 2013, despite pleas from U.S. field commanders and then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that the Afghans could get up and running in the Mi-17 quickly.  “They’ve been using it for years,” Hagel said in April 2013 House testimony. “Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That’s the one they want.”

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) publicly complained that year that the Pentagon's own research showed that the Boeing CH-47 tandem-rotor Chinook was a much more cost-effective helicopter for the mission in the long term. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) took aim at the Army for mismanaging the program, run by the Redstone Arsenal's Non-Standard Rotary Wing Aircraft Office at Fort Rucker, Ala. “The Army's mishandling of this arms program, as well as the Afghan military's inability to maintain the helicopters, further underscores why this contract should have been canceled long ago,” he said.

Blumenthal’s criticism of the program was punctuated when the Defense Criminal Investigative Service opened a criminal probe into its conduct in August 2013. That investigation ultimately led to the 2015 conviction of its former director, Army Col. Norbert Vergez, on conflict of interest charges. Among other things, Vergez was accused of taking illegal gratuities from subcontractors involved in the program.

Blumenthal said recently that the Afghan requirement could grow to as many as 159 UH-60s. They will be upgraded to the UH-60A+ configuration with T700-GE-701D/CC engines and related components.