Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey defended the $ 550 million deal during the hearing of the Senate Arms Services Committee in response to lawmakers’ criticism of the purchase contract over Russian arms supplies to the Syrian government.
Gen. Dempsey said that plans to hand security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014 will require providing them with the Mi-17. Besides, Mi-17 helicopters are cheaper and easier for the Afghans to maintain and operate than American-made aircraft.
"I support continuing on the path we're on to get the Afghans as capable as possible by the end of '14, and that will require us to stay committed to that fleet of Mi-17s," Gen. Dempsey said. "There's no way we could transition at this point and put them in anything other than that air frame".
Tensions in Congress over the purchase deal started when some senators voiced their concerns that the Pentagon is paying millions more than it should for the Mi-17 military helicopters, the Wall Street Journal writes. According to the Human Rights First (HRF) that obtained pricing information for the Mi-17 helicopters from a defense industry official, the contracts show sharp increases in costs. In 2008, the helicopters were produced for $ 4.4 million, but in 2010 Russia exported them between $ 12.7 million and $13.8 million, according to HRF.
The critics also state that the Pentagon buy the Mi-17 from the state-sponsored Russian arms export company, Rosonboronexport, which also sells weapons to the Syrian government, prompting criticism from members of Congress and human rights groups.
"Why is the Pentagon ordering more helicopters in the face of congressional opposition, evidence that US taxpayers are not getting a good deal and the admission that weapons from Rosoboronexport are being used to murder Syrian civilians," said Sonni Efron of Human Rights First, a former State Department official.
Nevertheless, Gen. Dempsey, replying to the criticism, said that the Russian ties to Syria did not mean there could not be collaborations with Moscow elsewhere.
"There’s also plenty of places where we have common interests, and Afghanistan just happens to be one of those with Russia,” he said.
Pentagon officials have said the helicopters are crucial to their plans in Afghanistan and that they are willing to issue national security waivers to circumvent congressional spending bans.
"There is no attempt to disguise the purchase of additional Mi-17's,” Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
The US Defense Department has purchased 33 Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport since May 2011 and signed a contract for 30 more on June 17, despite fierce opposition by American congressional lawmakers.