In a Jan. 13 notice, the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command Contracting Center said it would award a "sole-source" contract to Rosoboronexport for the purchase of Mi-17 helicopters, rugged Soviet-era aircraft that are a workhorse of Afghan military forces. "This item is restricted to Rosoboronexport," the notice said.
The Army didn't provide specifics on the cost or the size of the contract, but individuals familiar with the details confirmed it was for 21 new Mi-17 helicopters, along with tool kits, spare parts and testing.
The proposed purchase represents the latest attempt to equip the militaries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan with reliable, affordable aircraft from the factories of its former Cold War rival.
Russian-made helicopters like the Mi-17 are known for their versatility and ease of maintenance, but efforts to buy the aircraft were once complicated by U.S. sanctions against Rosoboronexport over its dealings with Iran.
Those sanctions were lifted last year as part of a push by the White House to patch up relations with the Kremlin.
Following a June meeting between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, both sides announced they would work together to provide Russian-made helicopters and spare parts to the Afghan military.
Rosoboronexport didn't respond immediately to an emailed request to comment, and its officials couldn't be reached by telephone.
U.S.-funded Russian helicopter deals have raised some eyebrows. Lawmakers have complained that the Pentagon should consider buying more American-made aircraft. And firms that hoped to bid on this latest helicopter contract were frustrated by the government's decision to pursue an exclusive deal with Rosoboronexport.
Last year, Arinc Engineering Services LLC, a Maryland-based firm, challenged a Navy-run solicitation to buy 21 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport. The Government Accountability Office dismissed Arinc's protest. Management of the procurement was subsequently handed over to the Army, which runs an office for buying "nonstandard" aircraft.
The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions over the past several years on Mi-17 procurement for its allies. Before sanctions against Rosoboronexport were lifted, private firms bought civilian variants of the helicopters and converted them for military use, according to people familiar with the process.