Watchdog: Accountability

Pentagon buying Russian copters for Afghans who aren't ready to fly them

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Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets,The Pentagon,Afghanistan,Russia,Waste and Fraud,Accountability

The Pentagon is spending $771 million on 30 Russian helicopters and 18 Swiss planes for Afghan special forces charged with stopping terrorism and opium production even though the force only has a quarter of the personnel needed to fly and maintain the equipment, according to a new audit.

In his latest critical analysis of U.S. spending in Afghanistan, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, called on the Pentagon to immediately suspend the purchases and he raised questions about the $553 million contract to the Russian firm.

Sopko also revealed in his audit provided to Secrets that the Afghan forces are not ready to handle maintenance and operation of the aircraft. "Without an effective support structure, U.S.-funded [special forces] aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of U.S. funds," said the audit.

The audit is Sopko's latest to draw attention the problems likely in Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave under President Obama's orders. His latests focuses on the air wing of the country's special forces. Overall, U.S. taxpayers will are expected to pay over $1 billion to supply the aircraft and fund maintenance.

Under the current plan, the Pentagon is replacing the air wing's aging force with 30 modified Russian Mi-17 helicopters and 18 Swiss-made PC-12 fixed wing aircraft. The bulk of that contract, $553 million, is going to Russian firm Rosoboronexport. The contract to Rosoboronexport--the sole Russian government agency selling Russian-made defense items and military hardware--had been delayed because of political considerations associated with U.S. transactions with it.

Despite the purchases, the audit said that the Afghan force isn't close to being ready to operate it. It has only 180 of the 806 the team needed to fly and maintain the aircraft. For example, it currently has 42 pilots, but will need 188.

In addition the force is having trouble finding forces who can speak English, in part because other jobs pay better to those who can speak English.

"We question the wisdom of moving ahead with the provision of 30 new Mi-17s and 18 PC-12s unless these issues are properly addressed," said the audit.

In response, the Pentagon rejected the recommendations, claiming a delay would slow the development of the special operations forces.

Paul Bedard, The Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.

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