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Senators press Pentagon to freeze out defense contractor over China chopper deal

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June 28, 2012: Members of the militia, a civilian reserve force under China's military, shout slogans as they march during an anti-terrorism exercise in Hami, in northwestern China. (AP)

Senior lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee are asking the Pentagon to consider breaking ties with a mega-U.S. defense contractor over concerns about its collaboration with China's military. 

United Technologies subsidiary Pratt and Whitney Canada pleaded guilty in June to violating the 1976 Arms Export Control Act for providing the Chinese with military software, helping China develop a new attack helicopter. 

The Justice Department charged that Pratt and Whitney Canada turned a "blind eye" to these regulations with the intent to secure future contracts from the Chinese for civilian helicopters worth $2 billion in profits. 

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking that the Pentagon strongly consider suspending business with Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp. as a result of this admission. 

"We find the crime to which P&WC pleaded guilty enormously troubling," they wrote, complaining that no "individual manager or employer" there has been held "personally accountable for criminal misconduct." 

The letter, which also was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noted that while State partially debarred the companies, "we believe that the Defense Department should itself evaluate this case for the appropriateness of contract suspension or debarment." 

The senators said the export control violations already "may have caused significant harm to our national security." 

The problem for the Pentagon is that United Technologies does an enormous amount of business with the U.S. military. It owns Sikorsky Aircraft, for example -- and just days after the guilty plea, the Army and Navy awarded Sikorsky a five-year, $8.5 billion contract for 653 Blackhawk helicopters.  

Government records show that from October 1999 to May 2012, the company got more than 19,000 Pentagon contracts worth $30 billion. 

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the Pentagon has reviewed the McCain-Levin letter and is drafting a response. 

But privately, officials in the Pentagon say it would be extremely difficult to suspend business with such a vital contractor. 

Still, the Justice Department's ruling on United Technologies was damning. U.S. Attorney David Fein wrote at the time of the guilty plea that Pratt and Whitney Canada "exported controlled U.S. technology to China, knowing it would be used in the development of a military attack helicopter in violation of the U.S. arms embargo with China." 

"We understand the important role export controls play in safeguarding US national security," director of public relations at United Technologies, John Moran, told Fox News. "As a supplier to the department of defense we take these obligations very seriously.  Over the past few years, we’ve greatly improved our compliance infrastructure, and have revitalized our ethics programs across all of UTC."