Pilatus deal ruffles feathers at home and abroad

The Pilatus PC-12 in its American military guise, the U-28A DOD

A deal to purchase 18 Swiss-made Pilatus aircraft for use in Afghanistan signed by the United States Department of Defense (DOD) has led to criticism both in Washington and in Switzerland, with questions raised about the cost and the use of the planes.

This content was published on July 24, 2013 minutes and agencies

The PC-12 is a single-engined turboprop aircraft usually used for corporate transport and by regional airlines. It is not designed for military service, but the US air force has 21 aircraft modified for special operations, calling it the U-28A and using it notably in Africa.

The 18 planes ordered last year are supposed to be given to the Afghan armed forces for its Special Mission Wing (SMW), to be used against drug trafficking and for counterterrorism. The $218 million (CHF205 million) contract itself was awarded to the Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation, an integration and electronics specialist firm.

Four squadrons of four aircraft each are supposed to be based at different locations across Afghanistan, while two were to remain at the disposal of the Afghan interior ministry. The contract was to be completed at the end of July 2015.

Just a few weeks ago, however, the deal hit a major obstacle. John Sopko, the US government’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, called the deal, along with the planned purchase of another 30 Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters for a total of $771.8 million, wasteful.

In a report to the US secretary of defense, Sopko, whose job is to track down unnecessary spending and corruption, pointed out that the SMW did not have sufficient staff and pilots to maintain and fly the aircraft as planned.

He recommended suspending major aircraft purchases for the Afghans until they built up capacities and were provided with more oversight. “We maintain that moving forward with the acquisition of these aircraft is imprudent,” Sopko wrote to the defense secretary.


Sopko has also revealed in another recent report that the US defense department built a $34 million headquarters building in southwestern Afghanistan. The facility has never been occupied and will likely be torn down as the Afghans will not be able to use it.

Another $11.5 million was spent to build four incinerators for solid waste at a military base. The two largest incinerators were not being used.

In one case of mismanagement, US officials hired an Afghan contractor to build a courthouse that turned out unusable.

It is estimated that since the intervention in Afghanistan began, the US has spent nearly $93 billion on “reconstruction”. The term covers items from building schools to supplying the Afghan army with equipment.

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Pilatus itself has not heard if the contract is cancelled. Markus Kälin, the assistant to the company’s chairman, told Geneva’s Le Temps newspaper that the US armed forces have already  purchased PC-12s in the past, but would not comment if they were used for military operations.

However, the company does market a PC-12 variant known as the Spectre for “law enforcement agencies, the military and Homeland Security departments.”

In its response to the Sopko audit, the Pentagon said it would not cancel the purchase of the aircraft, adding that it would go against national interests and the need to give Afghan forces more autonomy ahead of the American retreat at the end of next year.

The sale of the Pilatus aircraft raises other thorny issues in Switzerland. While perfectly legal, their ultimate use for military duties in what would be considered by many to be a war zone has not failed to raise a few eyebrows.

According to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the PC-12s exported from Switzerland are only civilian aircraft without any military attributes, which is why they do not fall under Swiss legislation defining the sale of war material abroad.

Jürgen Böhler, head of export controls at SECO, told Swiss public television SRF that the final use of any equipment is not considered when categorizing materiel, but whether it has a military use when it actually leaves the country.

SECO says that if an aircraft is modified in another country, it is up to that nation – in this case the United States – to decide if it should allow sales to a third party.

Politicians are concerned that the Pilatus planes could be misused. The centre-left Social Democrat parliamentarian Evi Allemann asked the government last December what risk there was that the aircraft could be used to commit human rights violations.

In its answer, the cabinet said that the PC-12 was a polyvalent aircraft that could be used for corporate transport, as an airliner, as a transport plane, or even as an ambulance.

For Allemann, the answer is unsatisfactory, as she told SRF. She said that the legislation on war materiel exports should be tightened to avoid equipment being modified abroad and then re-exported to conflict zones.

Whether she will be heard remains to be seen. In June, the Senate’s security committee called on the government to lower obstacles to arms exports.

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