Despite criticism, Pentagon sticks with Sikorsky rival

Washington –- The Pentagon Monday shrugged off an inspector general’s recommendation that it halt the purchase of Russian-made helicopters that shut Sikorsky out of a lucrative contract.

“We are moving forward with that contract,” said Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a federal watchdog, said Afghan forces lack the pilots and mechanics to operate and maintain dozens of Russian-made helicopters the Defense Department wants to provide to Afghanistan.

In a report, the inspector general said the helicopters made by Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport “could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in a waste of U.S. funds.”

Stratford-based Sikorsky, which recently announced it is laying off 200 workers, tried to bid for the Afghan Special Mission Wing contract, saying it produces a better alternative to the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters in the form of refurbished Sikorsky S-61 helicopters. But Sikorsky was shut out of the bidding.

Gregory said the Pentagon chose Rosoboronexport’s Mi-17s over U.S.-made helicopters because they are less complicated and easier to fly, especially in Afghanistan’s “dusty” climate.

“While U.S. companies produce the most technologically advanced rotary wing aircraft in the world, that technological advantage comes with a need for greater operational training and more sophisticated maintenance,” said the Pentagon spokesman.

He also said the Mi-17 “is the helicopter the Afghans asked for.”

The Special Inspector General report said there are only 180 Afghans qualified to fly and maintain helicopters, while more than 800 are needed. It also said it’s been difficult to find “Afghan recruits who are literate and can pass the strict, 18 to 20 month U.S. vetting process, a process that attempts to eliminate candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity.”

The inspector general recommended placing purchases of the helicopters on hold until the Afghans develop the capacity to support the aircraft.

“The Department did not concur with the recommendation that the DoD should suspend plans to purchase the … new aircraft for the Special Mission Wing as it would not be in our national interest,” Gregory said.

Connecticut’s lawmakers were able to include a provision in the 2013 defense authorization bill that bans the Pentagon from purchasing helicopters from Rosoboronexport because it supplies Syria with weaponry.

But the Pentagon avoided the ban by saying it used money appropriated in 2012 to enter into a new contract with Rosoboronexport on June 16 for 30 new helicopters. The contract is worth $554 million.

That infuriated some Connecticut lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who said, “the Defense Department blatantly ignored the intent of Congress when it signed a contract to purchase 30 more Mi-17s.”

“The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s report questioning the wisdom of this deal is deeply troubling and further demonstrates why this misguided contract should be canceled immediately,” DeLauro said.

The Pentagon is under pressure to train Afghan forces so the United States can pull more of its forces out of the nation. Having provided Afghanistan with 33 helicopters, the Defense Department hoped Rosoboronexport would deliver an additional 30 Mi-17s in the next 18 months.

Gregory said halting the production of helicopters  — and perhaps opening the program to other bids -– could push back the delivery of helicopters to Afghanistan for years.

“Delaying the contract award would unacceptably delay our efforts to develop the Special Mission Wing into a capable force,” he said.

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