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About 450 U.S. service personnel are in Afghanistan to train and advise the Afghan airmen. Training the air corps has been a painstakingly slow process, much more so than U.S. efforts to train Afghanistan’s national army and police.

Afghan pilot recruits, many of whom are illiterate in their native tongue, are required to learn English — the official language of the cockpit — before they can earn their wings. U.S. officials say it usually takes two to five years to train an entire flight crew.

So far, only one Afghan pilot has graduated from flight school in the United States, although dozens are in the pipeline. That has forced the air corps to rely on pilots who learned to fly Mi-17s during the days of Soviet and Taliban rule.

Gen. Mohammed Dawran, chief of the Afghan air corps, said most of those pilots are in their 40s and set in their ways. Requiring them to start fresh on U.S. copters would be an uphill battle.

“They learned the previous system and different ideas,” he said in an interview. Most of the veterans also don’t know how to fly at night or in poor visibility, when a pilot must rely on an aircraft’s instrument panel to navigate.

The Russian choppers are far more basic birds than U.S. models such as the UH-60 Black Hawk or the CH-47 Chinook. The Mi-17 is steered with a stick and rudder and usually lacks such amenities as Global Positioning System navigation. Afghan maintenance crews, accustomed to making do with whatever materials are handy, are skilled in making repairs with used soda cans and other makeshift parts.

The U.S. government has bought Russian choppers for other allies as well. The Pentagon purchased eight Mi-17s for the Iraqi air force, although defense officials say they have no plans to acquire more. The Defense Department has also purchased or leased 14 Mi-17s for Pakistan, although Islamabad recently returned some after a crash raised questions about their safety.
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In addition, the U.S. Special Operations Command would like to buy a few Mi-17s of its own, so that special forces carrying out clandestine missions could cloak the fact that they are American.

“We would like to have some to blend in and do things,” said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the clandestine program. “But the Russians know this. Russia has a small monopoly on Mi-17s. They are now exorbitantly priced.”

Critics in Congress said the price per chopper has tripled since 2006, from $6 million to $18 million. Pentagon officials dispute this, saying that the lower prices were for used, less capable Mi-17s, and newer models retail for about $15 million.

Defense officials and analysts said that U.S. helicopter manufacturers, struggling to produce enough aircraft for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, might not have the capacity to make more for the Afghan air corps right away.

Still, under pressure from Congress, U.S. defense officials have indicated that they are leaning away from their Russian buying binge.

“As a ‘Buy American’ kind of individual, I think it’s totally appropriate as we go forward that we continue to assess the program,” Army Secretary John McHugh, whose service oversees foreign helicopter purchases, told the Senate Appropriations Committee in March.

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Iran accused the United States of “deception” on Saturday and insisted its missiles are for self-defence only after a top US official charged that the Islamic republic could rain missiles down on Europe.

“The Islamic Republic’s missile capability has been designed and implemented to defend against any military aggression and it does not threaten any nation,” Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in a statement carried by state media.

He was reacting to remarks by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday that US intelligence has shown that Iran could attack Europe with “scores or hundreds” of missiles, prompting major changes to US missile defences.

Washington seeks to “expand its domination over Europe, and to find an excuse not to dismantle its nuclear weapons stationed in the region, while putting the pressure on Russia and surrounding it,” Vahidi said.

“The US seeks to create regional discord and impair (Moscow’s) regional ties to humiliate Russia and weaken its relations with neighbouring countries,” he added, urging Russia not to fall for “US deception and psychological war.”

US President Barack Obama in September cited a mounting danger from Iran’s arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles when he announced an overhaul of American missile defence plans.

The new programme uses sea- and land-based interceptors to protect NATO allies in the region, instead of mainly larger weapons designed to counter long-range missiles.

Gates said the United States believed “that if Iran were actually to launch a missile attack on Europe… it would more likely be a salvo kind of attack, where you would be dealing potentially with scores or even hundreds of missiles.”

Iran is under mounting international pressure over its controversial nuclear programme of uranium enrichment which the West fears masks a covert weapons drive.

The Islamic republic vehemently denies the charge, but has been flexing its military muscle mainly in the strategic Gulf region by staging regular war games and showcasing an array of Iran-manufactured missiles.

The United States and its top regional ally Israel, the sole if undeclared nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, have never ruled out a military strike to curb Iran’s atomic drive.

Iran has vowed to deliver a crushing response if it comes under attack.

It has developed more than a dozen short- and medium-range (up to 2,000 kilometres, 1,240 miles) missiles and continues to expand its ballistic missile capability, even launching satellite carriers into space despite UN sanctions.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has estimated that Tehran will have the capability to fire missiles at western Europe by 2014, but that it will need at least a decade to be able to target the United States.

Despite close economic and energy ties with Iran, Russia supported the latest round of sanctions against Iran on June 9 and froze a deal to sell S-300 anti-missile systems to Tehran.

The deal has been in the pipeline for years and was strongly opposed by both Israel and the United States.

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