Pentagon Holds Fast to Troubling Relationship with Assad's Arms Supplier

The Russians reacted angrily to the Bush-era sanctions against Rosoboronexport, with the foreign ministry lashing out at the "new relapse of the application of a unilateral sanctions policy by the United States against the Russian organization as an unfriendly act which cannot but have an adverse impact on our dialogue with Washington" and decrying "how many times they have been trying to 'teach' our company to live according to other people’s rules." Defense contractors had been working through international middlemen to keep up discussions with the arms giant around the sanctions.

"I think the administration is being outmaneuvered by Russia," Cornyn said, referencing the "naiveté" of President Obama's off-mic comments to Dmitry Medvedev about having more flexibility on missile defense after the election.

"The military tells us that it's the sole source," he said of Rosoboronexport and the Mi-17s. "I find it impossible to believe that there are not other sources available."

Today, Cornyn wrote Panetta, who has not responded to the senator's earlier concerns with any sort of "satisfactory response."

"I remain deeply troubled that the DoD would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria," he wrote. "…The DoD’s selection of the Mi-17 as the helicopter of choice for the Afghan military has created an untenable situation, because the DoD failed to consider inherent sourcing challenges with this Russian-manufactured aircraft. While I defer to the professional judgment of our uniformed military leaders regarding which helicopter best meets the requirement, I refuse to accept the DoD’s position that there are no viable alternatives to buying these aircraft through Rosoboronexport. This firm is not the manufacturer of these helicopters; it is merely a broker – a middleman."

In 2009, the senator noted, while Rosoboronexport was under sanctions, the Pentagon secured four Mi-17s through a private U.S. broker in a competitive process. In addition, the Defense Department has refused to pursue the route of buying and refurbishing the common helicopter.

"The DoD has confirmed that there is an additional requirement for Afghan Mi-17s beyond those that will be procured under the current contract, and it has suggested its intention to continue no-bid contracting with Rosoboronexport," Cornyn wrote. "I am seriously troubled by the prospect of additional contracts with Rosoboronexport, because it would represent a complete refusal by the DoD to seek out alternatives."

Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, requested a full audit of the Army's sole-source contract and a "personal commitment" from Panetta to open all future Mi-17 purchases to open, competitive bidding.

The Texas Republican holds some of the cards: "This issue is especially pertinent in light of the Senate’s consideration of the nomination of Ms. Heidi Shyu to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology," he noted to Panetta. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee."

"That would be my intention, until I get a satisfactory response, is to put a hold on that nominee," Cornyn told PJM.

A Cornyn aide confirmed that the hold on Shyu has been placed. The aide also confirmed that Cornyn's office has been working with Human Rights First, which has been pressuring the administration to put the Russian arms exporter back into the sanctions category.

“Treasury should designate Rosoboronexport for sanctions and investigate whether similar tactics can also be used to disrupt shipments of Russian arms to Syria, where attacks have left more than 13,000 dead, most of whom were peaceful demonstrators and unarmed civilians,” said Hameed.

"So far, we've been stiff-armed by the Department of Defense on this whole issue," Cornyn said. "We're not going to let this thing slide."