WASHINGTON -- It's not easy to find an issue that can leave both Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn equally outraged.
But the Pentagon paying $17 million apiece for a fleet of Russian helicopters certainly does the trick.
The Defense Department wants to spend taxpayers' money to buy 30 more Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to give to the Afghan army, through what is effectively a no-bid contract that blocks competing bids from such American helicopter manufacturers as Sikorsky, Bell and Boeing.
Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky, which makes the comparable S-61 craft, has strongly advocated to the U.S. government "that U.S. aircraft manufacturers are more than capable of delivering affordable and reliable helicopters for the Afghan mission." In a statement, Sikorsky said: "Given the opportunity, we would like to compete." The S-61 is a cargo and passenger craft widely used around the world by governments and private firms.
But the Pentagon has narrowed its Afghanistan proposal in a way that eliminates American helicopters.
After Cornyn complained that the Pentagon hadn't opened up the helicopter acquisition program to other bidders, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's acquisition chief, said the Defense Department would ask U.S. firms about "their ability to provide airworthy, armed Mi-17 aircraft for use by the" Afghan military.
Because no U.S. firms make the Mi-17, the Kendall letter amounted to a blunt rebuff to Congress and the U.S. helicopter industry.
To date, the Pentagon has bought about 70 of the Russian-made Mi-17s for the Afghan military. The new Pentagon plan to buy 30 more has riled some members of Congress who are asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for an explanation.
The lawmakers also are irked that the Mi-17 helicopters would be supplied to Afghanistan by Russian official state arms broker Rosoboronexport, the same firm that furnishes weapons to embattled Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Led by DeLauro, 10 House members have written Hagel to suggest that the Pentagon's purchase would be a violation of the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress and President Obama enacted last year. The act included a provision sponsored by DeLauro and Cornyn specifically barring any Pentagon dealings with Rosoboronoexport, though the measure allows the Secretary of Defense to waive that provision if such a waiver was "in the national security interests of the United States with respect to the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces."
The DeLauro letter sent last week to Hagel asks the Pentagon to:
-- Certify that the Pentagon has no new contracts with Rosoboronexport;
-- Open up competition for any new Afghan helicopter purchases;
-- Explain what U.S. national security interest would justify a waiver of the bar on dealings with Rosobornoexport.
DeLauro and another signer, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, have a special interest in opening up competition for the helicopter purchases because their congressional districts include two major American chopper makers, Sikorsky for DeLauro and Bell for Granger.
Army Col. Anne Edgecomb, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said the Pentagon has examined other options but that the "Mi-17s provide a readily available capability ideally suited for the conditions and environment in Afghanistan," she said. "Afghan military pilots, aircrews and maintainers have extensive familiarity and expertise in flying and maintaining Mi-17s."
Edgecomb continued: "The majority of seasoned Afghan pilots have flown and maintained Mi-17s since the 1980s. U .S. companies produce the most technologically advanced rotary wing aircraft in the world, but that technological advantage comes with a need for greater operational training and more sophisticated maintenance.
"Additionally, transitioning the ANSF to a significantly different platform would delay Afghanistan's rotary wing capability a minimum of three years while its pilots, aircrews and maintainers receive the necessary training and gain experience."
President Obama has ordered a fast drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Edgecomb said the Russian government says its laws require that Mi-17 helicopters purchased for the Afghan military must be acquired through Rosoboronexport.
By CHARLES J. LEWIS