Russian companies are also not the kind of suppliers the Pentagon is used to. The Army project office, for example, is trying to wrangle two U.S. Army-owned Mi-17s helicopters out of the Saint-Petersburg Aircraft Repair Company, or SPARC, which is alleged to have illegally exported them from Lithuania to Russia with the help of a badly forged end-user certificate allegedly signed by a Pentagon deputy assistant secretary (or deputy "assistance" secretary, as the forged certificate reads). The helicopters, which the U.S. Army paid to have overhauled in Lithuania, now remain stuck in St. Petersburg amid a contractual dispute. Suffice it to say that dealing with Russian entities often comes with a unique set of business problems.
Despite the obstacles associated with buying from the Russian defense industry, the trade in Russian helicopters and other Russian equipment has only grown since 9/11 as the United States has sought to provide cheap and simple counterinsurgency tools to militaries in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Since 9/11, the Pentagon has paid more than $1 billion to buy Russian military helicopters for its allies. Over 50 helicopters have been bought for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to date. (Less talked about, though widely acknowledged and traceable through court documents and Federal Aviation Administration records, is that the CIA also has a fleet of Mi-17s registered to front companies. It has used the helicopters extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, including during the 2001 Jawbreaker mission, when the CIA sent a team into Afghanistan to help cement support among tribal leaders for the U.S. invasion.)
Many people question why the United States is purchasing Russian helicopters with taxpayer dollars, but for those training the Afghans, the answer is simple: It's the perfect helicopter for the country. Rugged and reliable, it was essentially built by the Soviet Union to fly missions in Afghanistan, and it's what Afghan pilots have trained on for years, according to Air Force Col. Creig Rice, vice commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing and the NATO Air Training Command. "Is it the only helicopter for Afghanistan? No," he said, when I interviewed him in Kabul last month. "But is it the best helicopter for Afghanistan right now? Yes."
The question for the Pentagon is not why Russian helicopters, but how to buy them. Many purchases in the past were ad hoc and with no central coordination, a point underscored when the United States imposed sanctions on Rosoboronexport in 2006. It was an act of supreme intergovernmental incompetence: It slapped the Russian arms industry in the face just at the time when the United States desperately needed help to equip local forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sanctions created additional problems because of the incestuous ownership structure of Russian industry, in which Rosoboronexport owned a stake in Russian helicopter factories, raising the question of whether even buying commercial helicopters from Russia was legal. Unsure of how to proceed, the Pentagon sought and was granted a waiver to the sanctions, asking the U.S. government permission to ignore hundreds of millions of dollars in helicopter purchases.
The U.S. government's history of buying Russian helicopters has a checkered history. In the 1990s, stories abounded of shoddy parts, questionable deals, and mom-and-pop operations that would appear and disappear with frightening speed, taking contract dollars with them. Among the many questionable practices were U.S. companies presenting the Pentagon with what were called "exclusive supplier agreement" letters from Russian companies and agencies, essentially empty promises assuring would-be buyers that the designated U.S. firm was the only approved supplier. Those letters, I'm told, cost as little as a few hundred dollars. There was never a standard process for buying Russian equipment, much less determining who was, or wasn't, a legitimate supplier.
Recognizing the supreme mess the Defense Department had created over the years, the Pentagon's acquisition czar, Ashton Carter, finally stepped in this year and ordered the establishment of a single office to manage the procurement of Russian aircraft and assigned it to the Army. (Not everyone in the Army was thrilled with this move -- shortly after the decision, Brig. Gen. William Crosby, the program executive officer for aviation, which became responsible for "nonstandard aviation," reportedly referred to himself at a meeting as a "Mi-17 popsicle" because the job of procuring Russian helicopters had effectively been shoved up his backside.)