Criminal Investigation Yet Another Reason to Cut U.S. Ties with Russian Arms Manufacturer
Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First urges the Obama Administration to cancel plans to purchase more Mi-17 helicopters from Russia’s official arms dealer, following reports of a criminal investigation into procurement practices at the U.S. Army aviation unit in Hunstville, Alabama. The unit is in charge of the $1.1 billion no-bid contract to buy Russian helicopters for Afghanistan.
The Army has contracted to purchase the helicopters from Rosoboronexport, the official Russian arms exporter, which is a key supplier of weapons to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Russian weapons are believed to have been used in the murder of Syrian civilians. U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed opposition to the United States doing business with Rosoboronexport while the arms dealer is enabling Assad’s atrocities. The House of Representatives voted earlier this year to cut off all funds for the contract. The Senate will take up the issue this fall in the National Defense Authorization Act, as the Pentagon has requested $350 million for more Russian helicopters.
“There are many reasons why this is a terrible time for the United States to be buying yet more Russian helicopters, but a criminal investigation into corruption in the Army office handling the contract should be the last straw,” said Human Rights First’s Sonni Efron, author of the Blueprint How to Stop Doing Business with Russia’s Arms Exporter. “If we want to stop mass atrocities in Syria, the United States must go after the enablers as well as the perpetrators of these crimes. That means American taxpayers should not be doing business with Assad’s primary arms dealer while his forces are suspected of a chemical weapons attack on civilians.”
Reuters reported that the Pentagon’s Defense Criminal Investigative service is investigating potentially improper payments by the Army’s Non-Standard Rotary Wing Aircraft office in Huntsville, Alabama, to contractors as well as possible personal connections between members of the Army unit and the contractors.
Rosoboronexport is not a focus of the probe, according to the Reuters report, but the contract for new helicopters was handled by the same officials under investigation for their dealings with other arms dealers based in Lithuania and Russia. While an active duty U.S. Army Colonel, the former head of the Non-Standard Rotary Wing Aircraft had a telephone registered in his name at a home in Hunstville that was owned by the Lithuanian arms dealer, according to Reuters and to property records reviewed by Human Rights First.
Human Rights First has previously documented a steep increase in the cost of the Russian helicopters. A new announcement from the factory in Ulan-Ude, Russia, that produces the Mi-17 states that the Russian Army is buying 40 Mi-8 AMTSh helicopters (a combat transport version of the Mi-17) for $380 million, or about $9.5 million each. The U.S. Army is paying at least $18.2 million for each Mi-17 made at the same factory, and purchased through Rosoboronexport.