Senators Protest 'DoD's Seeming Blindness' on Contract with Assad Arms Supplier

Senators are still trying to get the Pentagon to listen to passionate objections to a multimillion-dollar contract with a Russian firm that's Bashar Assad's greatest arms supplier.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a March letter to follow the letter of the law and not use the national security waiver in the NDAA amendment to move forward with the sale.

The $572,180,894 firm-fixed-price contract modification announced in June to Rosoboronexport is for 30 Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts, test equipment, and engineering support services.

Today, Cornyn implored Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to cancel the contract and sever the Pentagon's relationship with the arms exporter.

The letter expresses concern over "DoD’s seeming blindness to the real risk of both Russian corruption in these deals and overreliance on a potentially hostile power."

Dempsey said in his July 18 reconfirmation hearing he would “stay the course with the existing program.”

"In the interests of national security and proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars, we ask you to reconsider," Cornyn and other senators wrote.

Joining the letter were Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

"As you know, while Rosoboronexport receives huge payments from DoD, it also continues to serve as a key enabler of atrocities in Syria, transferring weapons and ammunition to prop up the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad.  DoD has confirmed that Assad’s forces have used these very weapons to murder Syrian civilians, and the United Nations estimates that over 100,000 people have been killed.  DoD has now awarded well over $1 billion in no-bid contracts to this Russian state-controlled firm, which handles more than 80% of Russia's arms exports.  What’s more, as recently as 2005, Russia reportedly forgave more than $10 billion of Syria’s past arms sales debt.  As such, DoD has put American taxpayers in the repugnant position of subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians," the senators wrote.

Noting the Russian arms trade's history of corruption, they continued, "We need your personal assurance that American taxpayers are not being cheated out of their hard-earned dollars by corrupt Russian officials and contractors who may be lining their own pockets.  Further, we request a briefing on exactly what due diligence DoD did on this issue prior to awarding these contracts to Rosoboronexport, as well as what continuing safeguards DoD has in place to prevent this."

"...If DoD’s dependence on Russia for Afghanistan’s future rotary airlift capacity is as complete as DoD suggests, this raises serious questions:  (1) If the Afghan military continues to operate Russian aircraft for decades to come, can it ever be fully independent of Russia?  (2) Should Russia decide at some point to withhold support for the Afghan Mi-17 fleet, does DoD have a fallback plan to ensure the Afghan fleet’s readiness?  (3) Does the overreliance on Russia fostered by this Mi-17 program put the U.S. at risk of Russian coercion or blackmail on other security issues, such as the crisis in Syria, Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons, U.S. missile defense, arms control negotiations, or the security of former Soviet republics?"

Until just three years ago, Rosoboronexport had been the subject of U.S. sanctions for assisting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Russia is the top arms supplier to Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone.

Russia confirmed at the end of May that it has no intention of curbing its arms deliveries to Damascus.