U.S. lawmakers last week voted to prohibit Defense Department contracts with a Russian company that supplies weapons to Syria.
The lawmakers’ intent was clear: No funds “may be used to enter into a contract” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms dealer, according to a report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act.
Yet also clear was a caveat in the following paragraph: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may waive the provision if he determines that doing so “is in the national security interests of the United States.”
The U.S. Army has a $375 million contract to buy 21 MI-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan military from Rosoboronexport. The Defense Department in July agreed to buy 10 more for $171 million.
Afghan forces have flown the Russian helicopters since the early 1980s. The choppers are easy for them to operate because they have low complexity and function well in Afghanistan’s extreme environment, according to the Pentagon.
More than 41,000 people have died in Syria since an uprising inspired by other Arab Spring movements began in March 2011, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, has said he shares concerns “over the point of origin of these helicopters,” according to a July 27 letter he wrote to Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. “But I believe our mission in Afghanistan is of much greater significance.”
The House and Senate last week passed the defense authorization measure, which sets military policy and spending targets for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation. The bill is H.R. 4310.