Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A smell of corruption

One of the most bizarre episodes most recently carried on this blog was the news of the Mi-26 crash in Sangin last month, not only for the dubious history of the operator, but also for the fact that the MSM did not touch the story.

However, there was a brief flurry of interest when later that month an Mi-8 crashed at Kandahar airbase, killing 16, but there was absolutely nothing written about the operator, Vertikal-T, which also has a very dubious history.

As to the British use of these helicopters, it is assumed, inter alia that these rather dubious operators were employed for their willingness to take risks and, especially, for their cheapness. However, it has also been admitted that the MoD does not deal directly with these operators but hires the helicopters through an intermediate company, Skylink, yet another operator with an extremely dubious history.

But what now emerges from unlikely source is the actual cost of these helicopters. This comes from a private background briefing note being used by MoD press officers for when they talk to the media about helicopters, where it is revealed that the contract "provides 340 hrs at a cost of around £3.9M per month" (figures the defence secretary would never give to Parliament).

The payments are for one Mi-26 and two Mi8s, the average working out at about £11,500 per hour. Now, another general assumption is that, for routine contracts, the MoD – all things being equal – goes for the cheapest bidder. And here is the rub.

This blog has sight of a formal offer made to the MoD for the supply of the same helicopter types, costed at £3,500 per hour for an Mi-8 and £6,000 per hour for an Mi-26. This would work out at considerably less than half the cost of the Skylink contract, potentially saving the MoD £2 million a month. However, the eastern European and Russian operators are known to offer their services at rates considerably below these figures, offering potentially even greater savings if they were employed directly instead of through Skylink.

Furthermore, other things were not equal. The bid seen by this blog included the services of ex-Nato force pilots, all of whom could be security cleared and who were willing to be vetted as a condition of their employment. The aircraft maintenance was to be supervised by western-certified mechanics, and the supplier, having already operated in Afghanistan, had an excellent safety record.

Not only was this bid rejected out of hand, it emerges from a recent AP backgrounder that not only do the helicopter operators employed by the British and Nato have very suspect safety records, with links to known illicit arms dealers, there are also serious security concerns.

This is freely admitted by one of the Russian operators, Valery Gabriel, who admits that "Russia is delighted to be involved with the supply contracts" through its nationals and its aircraft. Not only is it "big business" – with one supply contract to the US worth over $400 million a year - this makes the coalition forces increasing dependent on Russia, conferring obvious political advantages.

But Gabriel also adds that Russia's GRU, its military intelligence arm — believed to have close links with several Russian companies operating in Afghanistan — may also stand to benefit. "From a GRU standpoint, you have an extremely useful source — low-level but extremely useful intelligence," he said.

When asked what safety and security checks it carried out on the operators and the personnel who were delivering high-value supplies into UK military bases throughout Afghanistan, the MoD replied that they had no responsibility to carry out "due diligence" on subcontractors.

Mark Galeotti, a military and organized crime expert at New York University, ventures that companies such as the Toronto-based Skylink are often used as intermediaries to give an element of "plausible deniability" when "cowboy" operators are used – but the MoD is paying dearly for the privilege.

And when, in this case, nothing stacks up, with the MoD hiring sub-standard providers, with dodgy safety and security records, at more than twice the price of legitimate operators, there wafts gently into the nostrils that unmistakable smell of corruption. While the MoD is short-changing injured troops on compensation, someone, somewhere in the chain, is making a great deal of money.

Strangely though, the AP backgrounder – damning in its own right – has been ignored by the British media. Of the very few users that have published the complete piece, you can count the Tehran Times and The Moscow Times - as well as the New York Times.

That tells you something about our media. The stink is not confined to the corridors of power.