A $171 million option contract between the USA and Russia to supply 10 Mil Mi-17 utility helicopters for Afghanistan by 2016 seems likely to stall, after the US Congress voted on 19 July to suspend all contact with Russia’s state arms export company Rosoboronexport over deliveries to Syria.
The bill, introduced by Democrat Congressman Jim Moran, was attached to the US military budget for 2013-2014, according to a House of Representatives statement.
"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran said. "There has never been a competition for supplying rotorcraft for the Afghan National Security Forces. Had there been one, I’m confident American firms would have done exceptionally well."
In mid-June, US Senator John Cornyn also called on the Pentagon to take action against Rosoboronexport, but the Pentagon dismissed his claims, saying that dealing with Russia’s arms exporter was the "only legally available method" for supplying the Mi-17s to Afghanistan.
The USA signed a $367 million deal with Rosoboronexport in May 2011 for delivery of 21 Mi-17V5s. All of these have been delivered, according to the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). Another contract was signed in June for two Mi-17s for spares, worth $46 million.
The Mi-17 provides a vital capability to the Afghan security forces
Russian Helicopters referred requests for information on deliveries to Rosoboronexport, which declined to comment. But the nation’s foreign ministry condemned the move by Washington, saying it was an "attempt at revenge for Russia’s position on Syria".
This is not the first time Rosoboronexport has been the subject of US sanctions. The corporation was sanctioned by the USA from 2006 to 2010 for allegedly providing nations including Iran and Syria with equipment that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Some analysts doubt the Afghan government would want another helicopter type in its inventory, however.
"In terms of follow-on orders the Mi-17 makes a lot of sense because of fleet commonality, crew and ground crew familiarity with the type, and the helicopter’s robustness and ability to be operated in austere condititions," says Douglas Barrie, air warfare analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
CAST’s Ruslan Pukhov agrees. "It would be possible to buy Sikorsky helicopters, but they would have to wait three years for them and they would be more expensive, and be more complicated from the point of view of training. This is a political move, pre-election demagogery," he says.