WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force wasted $549 million on faulty Italian-made cargo planes for the Afghan government and no one involved in the deal has been held to account, according to a new report by a government watchdog.
Neither a former U.S. Air Force general who was heavily involved in the project nor the company that sold the flawed aircraft to the Pentagon has faced prosecution over the program, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in the report obtained by NBC News.
The Pentagon bought 20 G222 cargo aircraft from Alenia North America in 2008 but the planes proved unreliable, with long delays to secure the delivery of spare parts, maintenance problems and numerous complaints about their safety from Afghan pilots. The program was suspended and the planes were destroyed and turned into scrap metal in 2014, selling for $40,257, according to the report.
“Unfortunately, no one involved in the program was held accountable for the failure of the G222 program,” the report said.
The former Air Force officer "had a clear conflict of interest because he was significantly involved with the G222 program while on active duty, then retired and became the primary contact for Alenia on the same program," the inspector general's report said.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, along with officials from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and the FBI, launched an investigation of the project. Federal authorities attempted to build a case against the contractor, Alenia, for possible contract fraud and other violations, and to hold the retired Air Force officer involved in the acquisition accountable, according to the inspector general's report.
SIGAR also assisted the inquiry, and found that several warnings from within the Air Force about Alenia and its lack of a plan to sustain the aircraft "were ignored." The investigation found that U.S. contracting personnel "did not check that Alenia had the required spare parts available as promised," or that it had confirmed the refurbished planes were airworthy "especially in the high altitude and extreme weather conditions of Afghanistan," the report said.
The Department of Justice accepted the cases for potential prosecution in 2016 but told SIGAR in May 2020 that both cases would be too difficult to prosecute successfully, the report said.
Justice Department officials maintained that convicting the retired Air Force general of conflict of interest violations "would be difficult because such convictions were 'unheard of,'" the report said.
The Justice Department also decided that because the U.S. government accepted the delivery of the aircraft — despite clear violations of contract's requirements — it "would significantly complicate any attempt to hold Alenia responsible for poor refurbishment and multiple other contract violations," according to the report.
The Justice Department declined to comment. The Leonardo Company, the successor firm to Alenia, did not respond to specific questions about the SIGAR report, but restated the terms of its contract to provide the planes, and noted it had received a follow-up contract to provide maintenance.
The Pentagon did not identify the Air Force general mentioned in the report as involved with the program and when asked for comment, referred to its response included in SIGAR’s report.
No lives lost
The report said the aircraft was not suited to flying in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and the plane’s flaws led to “near fatal” mishaps.
“Fortunately, the Afghanistan G222 program was terminated before any lives were lost,” it said.
The report recommended that for future weapons purchases, the Defense Department should sufficiently weigh risks before approving acquisitions, require contractors to provide plans on how they will sustain aircraft or other products, avoid waiving regulations or procedures because funding for a program is about to expire, conduct "comprehensive inspections" before accepting a final product and thoroughly investigate "allegations of the conflict of interest statute" and take appropriate action.
The report included a response from the Defense Department, which said it had adopted several measures to provide more oversight of weapons contracts as a result of the G222 program. The Pentagon disagreed with the report over whether the pending expiration of funding had played a role in rushing through the decision to buy the G222 cargo planes on a sole-source contract.