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Huge funds, huge waste in Afghan aircraft unit: US inspector

The Pentagon is spending $771 million on a risky Afghan aircraft project, an inspector warned Friday
The Pentagon is spending $771 million on aircraft for Afghanistan in a project that is at risk in part because of a lack of literate, non-insurgent recruits, an inspector warned Friday.

The Pentagon is spending $771 million on aircraft for Afghanistan in a project that is at risk in part because of a lack of literate, non-insurgent recruits, an inspector warned Friday.

The Afghan Special Mission Wing (SMW) was created in July 2012 with help from the US Department of Defense, which has committed to replace the unit's fleet of 30 aging Russian helicopters with 48 new aircraft.

But "the Afghans lack the capacity -- in both personnel numbers and expertise -- to operate and maintain the existing and planned SMW fleets," the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a damning report on the unit's progress.

SIGAR is responsible for assessing and controlling how US government funds are being spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan.

It determined that US defense contractors, not Afghan military personnel, are performing up to 70 percent of critical maintenance for the Russian Mi-17 helicopters as well as logistic management.

It also said just seven of 47 pilots assigned to the Afghan SMW were "fully mission qualified to fly with night vision goggles, a necessary skill for executing most counterterrorism missions."

An Afghan National Police Mi-17 helicopter flies past during a ceremony in Kabul on January 12, 2010
An Afghan National Police Mi-17 helicopter flies past during a ceremony in Kabul on January 12, 2010.

Just 86 of 385 required engineers and fewer than a quarter of the 188 pilots are in place, and the Pentagon and NATO training missions in Afghanistan do not have a sufficient plan to bring the unit to full strength, SIGAR said.

"These challenges include finding Afghan recruits who are literate and can pass the strict, 18- to 20-month US vetting process, a process that attempts to eliminate candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity," according to the report.

"We maintain that moving forward with the acquisition of these aircraft is imprudent," it added.

Such a large purchase "could result in wasted funds, more aircraft than the SMW can operate or maintain, and a requirement for DOD to support the wing -- at a cost of more than $100 million per year -- for years to come."

The Pentagon funded the Mi-17s through a contract with Russian arms firm Rosoboronexport, despite Congress imposing a ban on US cooperation with the company because of its arms deals with the Syrian regime.

The Pentagon circumvented the ban by using funding left over from fiscal year 2012.

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