Monday, June 21, 2010

The US military is buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters in order to equip the Afghan National Army Air Corps, and Congress is not happy about it.

The Washington Post reports:

In a turnabout from the Cold War, when the CIA gave Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels to shoot down Soviet helicopters, the Pentagon has spent $648 million to buy or refurbish 31 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Defense Department is seeking to buy 10 more of the Mi-17s next year, and had planned to buy dozens more over the next decade.

The spectacle of using U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy Russian military products is proving a difficult sell in Congress. Some legislators say that the Pentagon never considered alternatives to the Mi-17, an aircraft it purchased for use in Iraq and Pakistan, and that a lack of competition has enabled Russian defense contractors to gouge on prices.
So what's wrong with buying American helicopters to equip the Afghans?

The most likely alternative candidates, the UH-60 Black Hawk or the CH-47 Chinook, have unit costs of between $10-$15 million and $10-$24 million, respectively. These costs track closely with the $15 million per unit the US government is paying for the Mi-17s. The American aircraft, however, are significantly more complicated than the Russian models - they lack "amenities" like GPS - which would drastically increase maintenance costs. With the goal of creating an Afghan air corps that can operate independently of US support, keeping future maintenance costs at a minimum can't be too far from the minds of US officials.

Most importantly, the Mi-17 works well in Afghanistan. First, Afghan pilots, to the extent that they have flight experience, have it with the Russian aircraft. This fact significantly lowers the learning curve of the new Afghan air corps, accelerating the development of Afghanistan's own armed forces. Second, the Mi-17 is described by US officials as "well-suited for navigating the altitudes of the Hindu Kush mountains, as well as Afghanistan's desert terrain."

"Buy American" is a worthy goal in the abstract, especially when times are tough, but the military's decision seems based on realities on the ground. Congress, led on this issue by Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, has a legitimate oversight role to make sure the military acts as a good steward of tax dollars, but can't lose sight of the larger picture. Winning the war in Afghanistan is more important than steering more contracts to a particular state - the UH-60 Black Hawk is produced by Sikorsky in Stratford, Connecticut.

UPDATE: Apparently my unit cost research was a bit off - the Mi-17 is actually much less expensive than the Black Hawk. The Thai Royal Army recently opted for purchasing three Mi-17s for the price of one UH-60.

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