If the Russians are going to continue to arm the brutal Syrian regime, then the U.S. military should rethink its $900 million contract with the official Russian government-controlled arms broker, 17 senators said in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today.
"We write to express our grave concern regarding the Department of Defense's ongoing business dealings with Rosoboronexport, the same Russian state-controlled arms export firm that continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systematic attacks on its own people," reads a bipartisan letter sent to the Pentagon today led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), and signed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Robert Casey (D-PA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Russia has supplied over $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid. The contract has an option for another $550 million in helicopters, which could bring the whole deal to over $900 million.
"Even in the face of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government during the past year, enabled no doubt by the regular flow of weapons from Russia, the United States Government has unfortunately continued to procure from Rosoboronexport," the senators wrote.
Rosoboronexport is a special case not just because it is allegedly arming the Syrian regime to this day. The firm was blacklisted from doing business with the U.S. government in 2006 for violating the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, and was removed from that blacklist in 2009.
"While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military, our specific concern at this time is that the Department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community's concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria," the letter reads.
The senators argue that the Russian helicopters, which the Afghans have more experience flying than American ones, could have been bought through other firms. The Navy did exactly that in 2009, before the Rosoboronexport contract was signed, buying four of these helicopters prior to the current Army deal in a competitively bid contract.
"Other options are very likely available as demonstrated by the fact that the first four Mi-17 helicopters that the U.S. Navy purchased for Afghanistan came through a different firm. We ask that the DoD immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means," the senators wrote.
At last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Army Secretary John McHugh, Cornyn pressed him directly on the Rosoboronexport contract. The Army, as the executive agent on the program, is in charge of the contract.
"I am aware of it. The newer development, of course, is the alleged activity of Russian arms manufacturers in Syria. And the clarity on that is not what I think most of us would like at this point," testified McHugh, the former ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
McHugh claimed that the order for these specific helicopters came from U.S. Central Command -- the branch of the military tasked with overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the Army was just executing those orders. He also claimed that buying the helicopters from Rosoboronexport was the only way to get them.
"Rosoboron, under federal law in Russia, is the only one who controls the export of those platforms, so we didn't have options there, either, as I understand it," McHugh said.
Cornyn argued that this simply isn't true, because other versions of the helicopter can be purchased elsewhere and then retooled to meet the Afghans' specific needs.
"Apparently, in 2009, the Navy was able to use an alternative acquisition route through a private broker, and so, at least back in 2009, there appeared to be an alternative source for the Mi-17 variant helicopters and related tool kits for the Afghan army," Cornyn said.
"So it strikes me that it's pretty clear that Russia has Syrian blood on its hands and complicit in that effort," he continued. "And with that predicate, you can understand why I was troubled to read and learn that Rosoboronexport's customer list also included the United States Army."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.