Air Force spent $549M on planes for Afghan military that were sold for scrap
DAYTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Air Force spent $549 million on aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, most of which were junked a few years later at a scrap value of $40,257 — a project that involved officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
This is according to a recent report from a federal watchdog agency which concluded that no one has been held accountable for that waste.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says Wright-Patterson officials were involved in awarding the contract for the G222 transport planes, ending it and investigating what went wrong.
Those officials include a retired Wright-Patterson general who the report accuses of violating federal law by going to work for the vendor that provided the planes, Alenia North America.
The report does not name the general, but the description identifies him as former Air Force Security Assistance Center commander Brig. Gen. Joseph Reheiser.
Reheiser referred all questions to his attorney, Jonathan Sack, who provided a statement: “Gen. Reheiser disagrees with a suggestion in the February 2021 SIGAR Report that he had conflicting interests or otherwise acted inappropriately while in government service or the private sector. That the G222 program did not succeed was a great disappointment to everyone involved, including Gen. Reheiser, but it was not the result of bad faith or lack of hard work.”
The U.S. Department of Justice last year declined to prosecute Reheiser, according to the report.
Federal prosecutors won’t comment on that decision. The SIGAR report quotes Justice Department officials as saying convictions for such law violations are “unheard of,” and the general already received a verbal reprimand.
Federal prosecutors also declined to bring a civil case against Alenia. The U.S. government accepted the aircraft in spite of clear problems, the report says, weakening any lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, no one involved in the program was held accountable for the failure of the G222 program,” the report concludes.
Alenia North America was renamed Leonardo US Aircraft, a subsidiary of the Italian company Leonardo. Leonardo continues to be a U.S. military contractor, including a $176 million contract last year for 32 helicopters.
Officials with Leonardo in Rome said in a statement: “Leonardo fundamentally disagrees with SIGAR’s opinions set forth in its G222 report, which contains factual errors and faulty analysis. Leonardo was a dedicated government contractor and worked diligently in its attempts to make the program successful.”
SIGAR officials declined to make agency head John Sopko — a former Montgomery County prosecutor — available for an interview with the Dayton Daily News. But in an interview with NPR in August as the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, he said the special inspector general has detailed failings in reconstruction since it was formed by Congress in 2008.
“We can’t rewind the clock in Afghanistan,” Sopko said. “But we are doing similar work in other countries. And we should learn from the 20 years, not try to forget it and wash it away or sweep it under the rug.”
The G222 debacle was cited in a SIGAR report released in August, detailing lessons learned in 20 years of attempting to rebuild Afghanistan. That report says the U.S. government spent $145 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, including its security forces. The U.S. spent another $837 billion on warfighting. During this time, 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops lost their lives — along with at least 66,000 Afghan troops and 48,000 Afghan civilians.
The August SIGAR report says the problem with the G222 contract was a theme in Afghanistan reconstruction projects: rushed execution aiming for short-term gains without taking the time to ensure those gains were sustainable.
Mandy Smithberger with the Project on Government Oversight, said the special inspector general’s findings underline issues Congress should address, including lax penalties for violations of revolving doors ethics laws, and a need for a full accounting of missteps in Afghanistan.
“The reason (the G222 program) is a big deal is it’s emblematic of lots of little things that occurred in our reconstruction efforts,” she said.
A sole source contract
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan in 2006 said the Afghan Air Force had an urgent need for medium airlift capability. They identified old G222 planes in Italy that they thought could meet that mission.
The plan was for U.S. Air Force pilots and crew to train Afghan personnel, then give them the planes to last through 2022. Among other things, they would be used to transport Afghanistan’s president and members of parliament.
Commanders in Afghanistan submitted the request to the Air Force Security Assistance Center at Wright-Patt, overseen by Reheiser. That security center has since been renamed the Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate. It is still based here.
The directorate guides foreign military partners during the process of purchasing U.S. weapons systems and construction of support facilities. Its role with the G222 was to identify a contracting center to award the contract and provide program management. It ultimately chose an office at Robins Air Force Base.
Contracting officials at Robins issued a sole-sole source contract to buy the planes from Alenia North America, the U.S. arm of an Italian company, instead of seeking competitive bids.
The special inspector general criticized that decision instead of one which would have led to a competitive bid process. That process would have taken longer but required additional controls. SIGAR says this was done because the money for the project would expire at the end of 2008. Air Force officials said in their official response to the report said it was because the need for the aircraft was urgent.
Air Force officials were under immense pressure to deliver on the contract, the report says. It quotes a 2008 email from a Air Force deputy undersecretary to Reheiser and others saying: “Failure is NOT an option here.”
This rush led them to overlook obvious problems, the report says. For example, the planes were grounded for years in the open near the sea in Italy. AFSAC and Alenia claimed enough spare parts existed to support the planes for 10 years, but that wasn’t true, the report says. And it says Pentagon inspections of the aircraft before they were delivered were inadequate.
“A lot of stuff they (Alenia) signed up for they couldn’t do and didn’t understand the consequences,” the report quotes an unnamed contracting official as saying.
‘Where we failed’
The planes started arriving in Afghanistan in 2009, without enough spare parts. “We started cannibalizing aircraft for parts almost on day one,” the report quotes another contract official as saying.
But the planes operated well, at first.
“We flew members of Parliament to Pakistan, and we did airdrop resupply... There was nothing that we did not accomplish that first year. It was amazing, amazing success,” the report quotes an Air Force officer as saying. “So I think we proved the operational validity of the airplane in Afghanistan. What we couldn’t do was sustain it, and that’s where we failed.”
By 2012, 16 planes had been delivered to Afghanistan, and problems mounted. Often, six of them were cannibalized for spare parts to keep the others flying, the report says.
Complaints form Air Force pilots and others led to multiple investigations by defense oversight agencies.
After reports of near-fatal mishaps, Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, commander of the U.S. Air Force Central Command in the region, ordered an investigation. The findings issued in April 2012 found the planes were poorly suited for Afghanistan’s harsh environment. It also found shortcomings with the refurbishment and maintenance of the planes.
The Department of Defense Inspector General also investigated and in January 2013 issued a report saying Air Force officials didn’t properly plan for long-term sustainment when they bought the planes.
“The number of aircraft able to fly on any given day varied from zero to three because of problems associated with the maintenance and spare parts,” that report says.
Wright-Patterson commander ends contract, planes scrapped
A draft of that report was provided to Air Force Life Cycle Management officials at Wright-Patt in 2012. Officials here with the Mobility and Training Aircraft Directorate are responsible for sustaining and upgrading mobility aircraft.
At that point, the Air Force had obligated $486.1 million on the G222. Wright-Patterson officials said if the project continued through 2022, as planned, the total cost would be $830 million; the inspector general estimated it would actually be about $200 million more than that.
The Department of Defense inspector general wrote that NATO commanders and Air Force program managers “have not effectively managed the G222 program and have not determined the cost or availability of spare parts to sustain the aircraft. As a result, (they) may spend about $200 million in Afghanistan Security Forces Funds on spare parts for an aircraft that may not be sustainable.”
After receiving this draft report, Kevin Buckley, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Mobility at Wright-Patterson, directed the contract not to be renewed in March 2013.
After failed attempts to find a buyer, the 16 planes at Kabul International Airport were sold to an Afghan scrap company for $40,257. Four more G222s that hadn’t been delivered remain parked at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
AFRL review finds refurbishment shortfalls
Multiple reviews of what went wrong continued. Teams from the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson assisted in 2015 with inspecting the planes at Ramstein. The inspection found multiple examples of improper refurbishment, the special inspector general report says.
“The four aircraft examined exhibited hazardous conditions which compromise their airworthiness. There is clear and compelling evidence the subject aircraft were not refurbished ... in accordance with commonly accepted standards,” the team concluded, according to the SIGAR report.
In 2016, these findings were presented to representatives from the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorneys Office in the Southern District of Ohio for potential prosecution, the report says. Officials with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office say they reviewed the civil case, not the criminal case.
Oversight added of Afghanistan projects
Officials at Wright-Patterson would not answer questions from the Dayton Daily News about the G222. They pointed to the Pentagon’s response in the special inspector general’s report.
“The G222 program was intended to address a bona fide requirement, but failed broadly in execution,” says the response from Kenneth Handelman, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense of the Afghanistan region. “In the 2007-2008 timeframe, while the G222 program was in development, a resurgent Taliban led to pressure from the highest levels of the U.S. government to accelerate Afghan aviation capability. The urgency contributed to some of the management weaknesses documented previously.”
It says systemic oversight failures with programs like the G222 led Congress to create a Afghanistan Resources Oversight Council in 2010. And it says the Secretary of Defense has increased oversight of such programs.
WPAFB general gets verbal reprimand
SIGAR’s findings about Reheiser’s involvement in the G222 program came after a previous investigation by the Secretary of the Air Force Inspector General found he violated post-employment restrictions.
Reheiser was commander of the Air Force Security Assistance Center at Wright-Patterson from June 2007 to his retirement in June 2009. He then became vice president of air mobility programs at Alenia, and ended up managing the G222 contract for the company.
Reheiser’s attorney noted that nothing in the report accuses the general of being in contact with Alenia before leaving the Air Force. The attorney said Reheiser had no contact with the company until after he retired in late 2009 and was hired to work on a different program. He said Reheiser only started working on the G222 when the initial program manager left in mid-2010.
Federal law prohibits military contracting officers from working on matters they handled while a government employee for two years after leaving government service. Violating this law can lead to civil actions or prison time.
The Air Force inspector general found Reheiser “knowingly made, with intent to influence, communications to employees of the United States on behalf of Alenia North America in connection with the G222 contract,” however they found he “unwittingly” violated the ban, the SIGAR report says.
Reheiser received a verbal reprimand in September 2013.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice would not comment on the special inspector general’s report, but said they do prosecute conflict of interest cases and cited a case two months ago in Washington D.C. involving a U.S. park police sergeant.
WPAFB provides ethics guidance
“Contracting personnel, including program managers and contracting officers, receive annual ethics training, which includes identifying conflicts of interest,” a statement from Wright-Patterson officials says.
It says personnel are trained to seek legal advice if questions arise. Government acquisition personnel also file annual financial disclosure statements.
The SIGAR report says Reheiser requested and received post-government employment ethics guidance from Wright-Patterson legal personnel before and after retiring.
Reheiser told Air Force investigators he didn’t recall getting guidance after retiring or having discussions with ethics counselors regarding post-government employment restrictions, the special inspector general’s report says.
SIGAR says Reheiser downplayed his role with the G222 program, saying: “I don’t remember having any specific meetings or anything about this program.”
But it says a contracting officer at Robins Air Force Base told SIGAR the general was the only person they dealt with at Wright-Patterson about the G222 contract. Officials at both bases said Reheiser was significantly involved with the program while on active duty, the report says.
Reheiser’s rank and connections created an appearance of impropriety while worked for Alenia, the special inspector general’s report says, leaving some with the perception he used his influence to improve assessments of Alenia’s performance and release held payments.
‘Boondoggles’ without consequence
Smithberger, with the Project on Government Oversight, said violations of ethics laws often result in no more than a slap on the wrist.
“One of the global concerns we have had around a lot of revolving doors and ethics laws is they aren’t very strictly enforced,” she said. “Even the appearance of a conflict of interest creates doubts about the integrity of the process.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office this month released a report on how acquisitions officials leaving the Pentagon for contractors can lead to conflict of interest and affect public confidence in the government.
The report looked at 14 major defense contractors and found they hired about 1,700 recent former DOD military and civilian officials who were high-ranking or worked in acquisitions.
It found DOD has improved guidance and training for post-government employment restrictions and recommended expanding its regulations to cover lobbying. This is one of several reforms to “revolving door” laws proposed.
In addition to these reforms, Smithberger said what needs to happen now is follow-up reports to make sure increased oversight pledged by the Air Force is effective.
And she said Congress should authorize an independent commission to make sure we learn from mistakes made over two decades in Afghanistan — including with the G222 contract.
“You’re not going to discourage wasteful spending if you have boondoggles like this, but there aren’t any consequences,” she said.
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