U.S. Reportedly Under Fire for Buying Russian Helicopters for Afghan Air Corps

The U.S. government came under fire from Congressmen for buying Russian-made helicopters instead of American choppers to form Afghanistan's air force, according to a report in Saturday's edition of The Washington Post.

The U.S. Defense Department was criticized for planning to purchase 10 Russian Mi-17 helicopters next year for the Afghan National Army Air Corps, after the Pentagon already spent $648 million to buy or refurbish 31 of the aircraft.

Some Congressman charged that the government failed to consider alternatives to the Mi-17s, which were widely used in Iraq and Pakistan, creating a lack of competition and allowing Russia's defense contractors to hike their prices.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) urged the government to reconsider and purchase U.S.-built aircraft.

"The Mi-17 program either has uncoordinated oversight or simply none at all ... The results have led to massive waste, cost overruns, schedule delays, safety concerns and major delivery problems," the Washington Post quoted Shelby as saying.

However, U.S. and Afghan military officials argued that changing helicopter models would cause problems for Afghan pilots, who were not trained to fly American-built helicopters.

General Mohammed Dawran, chief of Afghanistan's air corps, said most of the pilots were in their 40s and set in their ways. Teaching them to fly an American-made chopper would be "an uphill battle," the newspaper reported.

Brigadier General Michael R. Boera, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of rebuilding the Afghan air corps, believes the helicopters' origins need to be forgotten for the good of the fledgling air force.

"We've got to get beyond the fact that it's Russian ... It works well in Afghanistan," the newspaper quoted Boera as saying.