Barking at Russia

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Washington has few major government-to-government aerospace and defense deals any more with Russia, but it is looking increasingly like what is left still will not be sacrificed just to protest Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.

To be sure, Congress probably again will include language in annual defense authorization or appropriations bills – which are beginning to be crafted on Capitol Hill – to make sure no new contracts are signed with Russian state-arms dealer Rosoboronexport, but even there the point is largely moot. The impetus behind that issue – providing used Mi-17 helicopters to Afghan security forces as the West likely withdraws combat forces – played out last year, with the Pentagon announcing in November it will no longer buy 15 more of the Russian heavy lift helos for Afghanistan. That move came after U.S. helo maker cheerleaders in Congress like Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Sikorsky advocate, and Kay Granger (R-Texas), a Bell Helicopter proponent, used the Syrian crisis to make their point last year. Now they are using the Ukrainian crisis to lobby the Pentagon to cancel existing contracts with Rosoboronexport for the helos, their spare parts and maintenance. In a March 19 letter Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the lawmakers make the case that, when combined with the Defense Department’s ability to terminate contracts when doing so is in the U.S.’s interest, an executive order by President Barack Obama this week allows defense officials to end current deals.

But even as Obama announced more economic sanctions against Russians on March 20, the Pentagon was mum about canceling current Mi-17 work. Moreover, defense officials have never disavowed their previous arguments how, given the rapidly approaching U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, that country’s high-altitude helo needs and its greater familiarity with cruder Russian military equipment, the earlier contracts for Mi-17s were in U.S. national interests to build up Afghan capability.

"We're going to respond to the letter in kind, and we're aware of these concerns," the Pentagon's spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said March 20. "But I do think it's important to remember the original intent of the contract was to help deliver to the Afghan National Security Forces a helicopter that is well-suited to the missions they need to fly and will need to continue to fly post-2014 with a platform they know how to use, and that's well-suited to the very harsh Afghan environment and the altitudes at which they need to fly."

National interests might be even more so for the other major, direct U.S.-Russian A&D deal – launching and retrieving astronauts from the International Space Station – and there, too, NASA has not been quick to discuss it publicly. Indeed, the reasons against cancelling the U.S. launch deal with Moscow may harken to the White House’s recent decision to extend the space station’s mission. That is, the drive for more affordable and competitive commercial-sector launch capability, such as provided by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, relies on having the ISS as their business case.

With no U.S. astronauts going to the ISS, which would happen by cancelling the existing deal, it might make it harder to defend federal spending on the station in an era of austerity. So while events continue to unfold in Ukraine and political pressures in the U.S. may change, for now the answer about U.S.-Russian A&D deals appears clear, if unspoken.

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