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Army buys Mi-17s from Russian exporter

The Defense Department didn't consider other potential suppliers of helicopters for the Afghan military before buying them from a Russian exporter that Congress has criticized for funneling arms to the regime in Syria, government auditors said.

The U.S. since 2005 has bought about 50 of the Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters to help build the Afghan air force, according to an April 1 report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. It plans to buy another 30 -- in a sale potentially valued at more than $500 million -- for a total of 80 aircraft.

The chopper was developed by the former Soviet Union for high-elevation flying in Afghanistan. The Moscow-based manufacturer, Russian Helicopters, makes both civilian and military versions of the aircraft. Another company, Rosoboronexport, the state-owned arms exporter also based in Moscow, sells military variants abroad.

The Defense Department "did not assess alternative means for procuring Mi-17s after verifying that Russia would only sell the helicopters to the United States through Rosoboronexport," GAO wrote in a report released this week.

U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns that Rosoboronexport is supplying weapons to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 60,000 people have died in the country, mostly civilians, since the uprising against the regime began in 2011, according to a United Nations-funded study from January.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, held up the nomination of the Army's top acquisition executive until he received a commitment from the Army to consider weapons suppliers outside of Rosoboronexport. He lifted the hold on Heidi Shyu's nomination in September.

An Army analysis determined that the price paid for the helicopters -- about $17.2 million apiece -- was reasonable, even though some commercial suppliers offered a slightly better deal, GAO wrote.

"Army officials told us that buying military aircraft directly from Rosoboronexport was less costly than buying a civilian aircraft from a U.S. vendor and then modifying it to a military configuration," GAO wrote.

The Navy, which previously oversaw the program, originally intended to buy 21 civilian versions of the helicopter from commercial suppliers and add weapons to them for operations in Afghanistan, according to the GAO. The Pentagon in 2010 told the service to cancel the solicitation after Russian officials said they would only sell the helicopters through Rosoboronexport because the aircraft were intended for military use.

The Army also said having access to the helicopter's original manufacturer will decrease the risk of finding counterfeit parts, a "long-standing problem" with the aircraft due to its prevalence on the world market.

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