Russia to Fill Iraq, Afghan Helo Orders

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Russia to Fill Iraq, Afghan Helo Orders

Thanks to the Pentagon and most likely the American taxpayer, the skies of Afghanistan will again be filled with the distinctive noise of Russian helicopters.

So too will the skies of Iraq, and the contracts for these choppers have caught the attention of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Shelby fired off a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary William Gates this week to try to figure out how much of the more than $800 million spent buying Russian made Mi-17s was taxpayer funded. He also wants to know why, in particular, the contract for Iraq was awarded without a bid.

Which has Shelby and others wondering why U.S. helicopter makers couldn't have taken a shot at filling these orders.

In December of 2007, a contract was given for 22 Mi-17s to a Maryland defense broker ARINC to enable Iraq to buy the helicopters.

It's a story that was originally kicked up by free lance reporter Sharon Weinberger, writing for Wired Magazine back in April. She has continued to follow the story and on Friday discussed how it came to light and why she's still pursuing it.

ARINC declined to comment on this story and the Pentagon said they would hunt down a person to discuss the issue, but didn't call.

"It's a confusing situation," she agreed, when told a couple of defense and aerospace analysts were perplexed by the deal. She explained there are many contracts involved, but the biggest is the Iraq one, which started as a $322 million deal. It's costs have

apparently increased by 10 percent or more, she said, but the helicopters have not been delivered as far as she knows.

She noted people need to understand that Iraq is a sovereign nation and can pick any helicopter they want to buy.

Shelby's office confirmed that the Iraqis have paid for some of the contract. The U.S. at the time was trying to bring the Iraqis up to fighting capabilities as quickly as possible, she said, but delays in the program appear to have negated the original thinking on awarding the contract.

Weinberger said she follows foreign military sales and when she heard about the Iraq deal it peaked her interest because the contract was never announced.

Most defense contracts are announced on a daily basis on a DOD Web site. As she dug into the story, it became more interesting and confusing.

At this stage, the most important thing is for the Iraqis to get the helicopters, she said, because the Russians have been paid.

"The Russians aren't going to give the money back," she noted.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., agrees with Weinberger on that score.

"It is unacceptable that almost two years after the Army awarded this contract, helicopters have still not been delivered to our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee. "There should not have been a sole-source solution when competition would have delivered the capability at less an expense."

That's one of Shelby's points as well.

American helicopter makers, including Sikorsky Aircraft with headquarters and its main factory in Stratford and additional facilities in Alabama, were excluded from even competing for this money.

Sikorsky declined to comment on this article.

Forecast International Analyst Dan Darling wasn't surprised that Russian helicopters in Afghanistan.

"Just like the old days," he quipped. The Afghanis used the Russian helicopters after the 1980 invasion by the then USSR, for decades. And there have been several articles noting this connection.

But the Iraq contract seems a little odd, according to Darling, Forecast's Middle East Military Market Analyst said.

"We thought it was a rather strange procurement," he said. "For the most part the U.S. military has been rebuilding their military with U.S. military."

But Darling offered another reason for the possible delay in the order fulfillment. He said the Iraqi's who are paying for some of it, were using oil money. Oil prices have dropped and Iraq has been forced to trim its budgets and spending.

While Iraq has its own money, Darling has little doubt that the American taxpayer is on the hook for spending in Afghanistan.

He said that country doesn't have the money for this. In fact, the Afghani's were being armed mostly through donations after the U.S. and its allies took the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Much of that equipment was older Russian vehicles that had to be reconditioned, he said. "Some of it was rejected."

Like Weinberger, he said, from the Pentagon's perspective, this probably seemed like the fastest way to build up a new Afghanistan and Iraq army.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said one of the biggest problems with these contracts is that there's not enough information to make any judgements on them.

"We just don't know," Aboulafia said, of what's going on with them.

And that again is one of Shelby's complaints. The Senator slammed the Pentagon for not having a point person on these contracts and noted it took him two months of requests to get any information on the project.

Weinberger said she's interested to see what happens now that Congress is involved.

So too, might be the U.S. helicopter industry.

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