Marine Corps Commandant Nominee Supports Russian Helicopters for Afghan Forces

By Stew Magnuson

The nominee to lead the Marine Corps said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he supported the Defense Department purchase of Russian-made helicopters for the Afghan national army.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., current commander of the international security assistance force, said July 17 that proposals to cancel a contract with a Russian company to buy Mi-17 military attack helicopters could have “catastrophic” impacts on the efforts of local special operations forces to complete future counterterrorist missions.

“In 2015, Afghan security forces will contribute to the forces and coalition forces. Their ability to do that will be significantly degraded without the Mi-17,” he said.

Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., acknowledged that some members of Congress had asked the Defense Department to halt its purchase of Mi-17 helicopters on behalf of Afghanistan. Pressure has built to end the sales in the wake of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine.

“We right now are not are not confident that the Afghans can take up complete control of their own security,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Committee members’ questions focused on Dunford’s experiences in Afghanistan rather than his thoughts on the future of the Marine Corps. Gen. James Amos is set to retire as commandant of the Marine Corps this fall.

Dunford said there were substantial improvements in both the Afghan forces and the daily lives of civilians. The United States must continue to have a strong presence to finish the work it started 13 years ago, he said.

McCain said the committee would re-address budget issues such as sequestration, and prioritize funding to ensure the United States is “getting it right” during the Afghanistan drawdown. Otherwise, the country could end up like the current situation in Iraq, he said.

“We knew when we left Iraq, that there was work remaining to be done. In Afghanistan, we have a chance to get that right,” Dunford said.

Sustainability and political security are now the primary focus overseas, Dunford believes. But budget constraints and continued troop drawdowns have hindered the services’ ability to help allies and build relationships. “It requires us to break programs,” he said.

Dunford said his greatest challenge in assuming his role as commandant would be readiness and response in accordance with modernization and technology, as sequestration reduces Marine Corp modernization efforts.

After 13 years at war, Dunford said the morale of the men and women serving in Afghanistan exceeds expectations and is “something we can all be very proud of.” What’s lacking is the modern equipment and technology necessary to finish the mission, he added.

“You need to come back to us and tell us if we’re not getting it right,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

When members asked about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, Dunford said its army recognized the existential threats that came with extremism. Despite Pakistan’s determination to fight terrorism, he was not confident it could handle these threats.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Expeditionary Warfare

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