The Real Reason Lawmakers Don’t Want to Buy Russian Helicopters

Senators cite problems with Russia. But home-state interests are ever-present.

Caption:A Pakistani Air Force Mi-17 helicopter flies over the Presidential Palace during a parade marking the country's National Day in Islamabad on March 23, 2014. Pakistan National Day commemorates the passing of the Lahore Resolution, when a separate nation for the Muslims of The British Indian Empire was demanded on March 23, 1940.
National Journal
Billy House
May 20, 2014, 4:22 p.m.

Pentagon com­mit­ments to pur­chase MI-17 trans­port heli­copters from a Rus­si­an com­pany for the Afghan mil­it­ary would be scrapped un­der le­gis­la­tion that is gain­ing at­ten­tion this week, cham­pioned by law­makers par­tial to their home-state heli­copter man­u­fac­tur­ers.

The law­makers’ ob­ject­ives may be rooted in pa­ro­chi­al con­cerns over tough times fa­cing the U.S. heli­copter in­dustry, says Loren Thompson, a de­fense ana­lyst with the Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute. But Rus­sia’s in­va­sion of Ukraine and an­nex­a­tion of Crimea is en­abling the ef­fort “to at­tach it­self to a broad­er agenda — with bi­par­tis­an sup­port,” he says.

“I think the is­sue has united home-state in­terests with what’s viewed as a “˜high­er pur­pose,’ “ Thompson said.

Fu­ture pur­chases of the heli­copters made by Rus­si­an state arms deal­er Rosobor­on­ex­port already have been barred as a res­ult of law­maker con­cerns last year that the com­pany was sup­ply­ing arms to Syr­ia, even though U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials have said the Rus­si­an-made craft is pre­ferred in this in­stance over Amer­ic­an mod­els, in part be­cause the Afghan forces have ex­per­i­ence op­er­at­ing it.

But this week, pres­sure is mount­ing in both cham­bers — and in both parties — to also halt the pro­cure­ment of at least 18 un­delivered heli­copters that are already part of Pentagon com­mit­ments total­ing about $1 bil­lion. If the or­ders were com­pleted, it would mean that a total of 63 heli­copters have been sup­plied to the Afghan Air Force.

In the Sen­ate, a bi­par­tis­an group of law­makers have in­tro­duced the Rus­si­an Weapons Em­bargo Act of 2014, which would for­bid “the dir­ect or in­dir­ect use of Amer­ic­an tax dol­lars to enter con­tracts or agree­ments with Rosobor­on­ex­port and im­me­di­ately ter­min­ate ex­ist­ing con­tracts and agree­ments with the agency.”

The le­gis­la­tion, which spon­sors want to be con­sidered in a markup of the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act this week by the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, also would pro­hib­it con­tracts with any do­mest­ic or for­eign com­pany that co­oper­ates with Rosobor­on­ex­port to design, man­u­fac­ture, or sell mil­it­ary equip­ment.

“The hos­tile situ­ation in Ukraine is yet an­oth­er re­cent ex­ample of why the United States should stop do­ing busi­ness with Rus­sia and its arms deal­er,” said Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., who in­tro­duced the meas­ure along with Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Blu­menth­al’s state is home to Sikor­sky Air­craft, which could be a be­ne­fi­ciary should the agree­ments with the Rus­si­an arms deal­er be can­celed. In com­ments on the Sen­ate floor in late Oc­to­ber, Blu­menth­al said, “I may be par­tial to heli­copters made in Con­necti­c­ut. The best heli­copters in the world are made in Con­necti­c­ut by the Sikor­sky em­ploy­ees….”

But Blu­menth­al, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, then went on to al­lege that “the con­tract to award these heli­copters was man­aged in a way to pre­vent Amer­ic­an heli­copter com­pan­ies from bid­ding on the work.” Blu­menth­al said a 2010 De­fense De­part­ment ana­lys­is con­cluded that the Boe­ing-made CH-47D Chinook heli­copter is the most cost-ef­fect­ive Amer­ic­an op­tion for the Afghan Air Force over a 20-year life cycle.

Al­though that is not a Sikor­sky craft, Blu­menth­al said, “at the end of the day, “˜Made in the USA’ ought to be the rul­ing prin­ciple. Made in the USA — Amer­ic­an heli­copters for the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary and Amer­ic­an al­lies.”

Cornyn, whose state is home to Bell Heli­copter, said, “Con­sid­er­ing Rosobor­on­ex­port’s close con­nec­tion with Vladi­mir Putin and his cronies, and its ties to bru­tal dic­tat­ors who’ve com­mit­ted mass at­ro­cit­ies, there is no reas­on for our mil­it­ary to con­tin­ue to rely on equip­ment from thugs mas­quer­ad­ing as a le­git­im­ate busi­ness.”

Mean­while, In­di­ana­pol­is is home to the Ray­theon Ana­lys­is & Test Labor­at­ory, a former U.S. Navy avion­ics test lab with ex­pert­ise in de­vel­op­ing flight com­puters and war­fare sys­tems for at­tack heli­copters. “Giv­en Rus­sia’s hos­tile ac­tions in Ukraine, busi­ness as usu­al is un­ac­cept­able,” Coats said.

In the House, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Rosa De­Lauro, whose dis­trict in­cludes Sikor­sky and who has fought the Rosobor­on­ex­port heli­copter pur­chases for sev­er­al years, also re­in­vig­or­ated her ef­forts. House Rules Com­mit­tee aides say they ex­pect at least one of two amend­ments to the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that she has pro­posed to be cleared for floor ac­tion later this week.

Ac­cord­ing to sum­mar­ies provided by De­Lauro’s of­fice, one amend­ment would “pro­hib­it con­tracts or sub­con­tracts” with Rosobor­on­ex­port and “re­quires the ter­min­a­tion of any cur­rent con­tract with the firm.” The amend­ment would also bar the Pentagon from en­ter­ing con­tracts “with any for­eign com­pany that co­oper­ates with Rosobor­on­ex­port to design, man­u­fac­ture, or sell mil­it­ary equip­ment.”

The oth­er amend­ment would block the Pentagon from en­ter­ing in­to a con­tract with Rosobor­on­ex­port un­less the sec­ret­ary of De­fense, in con­sulta­tion with the sec­ret­ary of State and dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence, cer­ti­fies that the firm has ceased trans­fer­ring weapons to Syr­ia, Rus­sia has pulled out of Crimea, Rus­si­an forces have with­drawn from the east­ern bor­der of Ukraine, and Rus­sia is not oth­er­wise act­ively destabil­iz­ing Ukraine.

Thompson, the de­fense ana­lyst, says the fact that ef­forts to sanc­tion Rus­sia are linked to home-state in­terests does not mean these law­makers are ad­voc­at­ing for a less­er product. The best product, he said, is one that also falls in line with the na­tion’s policy goals and needs.

“The So­vi­ets may have had the best rifle in World War II,” he said. “But that did not mean it was in the best na­tion­al in­terest for us to buy those rifles.”

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