Incoming ISAF Commander Acknowledges 'Inherent Risks' of Pentagon Contracts with Russian Arms Giant

WASHINGTON -- The incoming U.S. commander in Afghanistan told a leading Senate Republican recently that he's not aware of efforts at the Pentagon to lessen the need for future reliance on Russia's largest arms exporter to supply Afghanistan's military, but acknowledged that such a relationship "brings inherent risks and dependence on Russia."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is among a strident contingent in both chambers who have long fielded vociferous objections to the more than $1 billion in no-bid contracts awarded to state-owned Rosoboronexport since 2011. President Obama, who removed President Bush's sanctions against the company in 2010, has used a national security loophole to overrule past congressional efforts to stem the flow of money to the Russian firm, as lawmakers argued that the U.S. shouldn't be lining the pockets of the supplier to Bashar al-Assad.

Now, the arguments have extra weight in Congress as a Russian-supplied Buk missile system -- which, in a macabre coincidence, Rosoboronexport was recently marketing to Malaysia -- took down flight MH17 over restive eastern Ukraine near the Russian border last week.

The Pentagon is expecting the last of the 88 Mi-17 helicopters purchased for Afghanistan’s air force to be delivered by this fall, a purchase made on the assessment that the Afghans would be better able to operate and maintain the Russian technology.

Cornyn recently asked Gen. John Campbell, who was confined by the Senate on Wednesday to lead NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, questions about whether "fielding an all-Russian helicopter fleet for the Afghan military fosters an inherent dependence on Russia for the near future," the challenges of adding U.S.-made helicopters to the Afghan fleet, and what the Defense Department is doing to "reduce the risks of a pure Russian fleet."

"I agree that fielding an all-Russian Mi-17 helicopter fleet brings inherent risks and dependence on Russia," Campbell replied. "I was not involved in the decision to field MI-17s over other airframes, but based on my previous time in Afghanistan and from what I have learned in preparation for possible confirmation, I do agree with General [Joseph] Dunford’s current assessment that the Mi-17 is the right choice for Afghanistan and that now is not the time to change course."

If confirmed, the general added, he would work on a "more detailed answer."

Lawmakers formally requested last year that the Defense Department explore alternatives to giving business to the Russians.

Campbell told Cornyn that he's "unaware of the specific measures being taken to reduce the risks of a Russian origin Mi-17 helicopter fleet by the DoD."

"I do know, however, that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Government of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan will make decisions about aircraft modernization and the future of their fleet that may offer opportunities for foreign military sales (FMS) of American helicopters," he said.

Again, Campbell vowed that after his confirmation, "I will review and provide my best military advice for possible alternative solutions and FMS while working with my Afghan counterparts."

"Based on what I know today, I cannot absolutely say that the benefits of introducing US helicopters into the Afghan Air Force would outweigh the risks of maintaining a pure Russian Mi-17 fleet," the general said. "I do believe that a future decision to seek alternative airframes, parts and maintenance rests in most part with the Afghans -- that the Afghans should determine what airframe is best suited for their operations and environment."

Dunford, the outgoing ISAF commander, told Congress on the morning of the attack on Malaysian Airlines that the relationship with Russia’s arms giant is a necessary one even if it's the U.S. cutting the checks.

“Without the operational reach of the Mi-17, the Afghan forces will not be successful in providing security and stability in Afghanistan and will not be an effective counterterrorism partner,” Dunford told Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in his hearing to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps. “And one of the second order effects of that, chairman, which is why I use the word ‘catastrophic,’ is that we’ll also have an adverse impact on our force protection in 2015.”

“Among the assumptions that I make in 2015, is the Afghan Security Forces will contribute to the force protection of coalition forces in 2015. And their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without the Mi-17.”