WASHINGTON -- A key U.S. congressional committee has backed a substantial increase in defense spending to reassure European allies jittery about Russian military maneuvers.
Lawmakers on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee also voted April 28 to allocate $150 million to help train and equip Ukrainian government forces in their fight against Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.
But the bill appears to stop short of heeding Kyiv’s repeated requests for weaponry other than the defense equipment Washington has been providing to date.
At $610 billion, the legislation is one of the largest single annual budget measures considered by Congress, covering a sweeping range of U.S. defense policy. This year’s package authorizes more money for more advanced fighter jets, new navy ships, and cyberwarfare, as well as more mundane matters like service members’ salaries and health-care expenses.
But the bill also reflects foreign policy priorities, and the alarm that many lawmakers and policy officials have voiced regarding Russia’s stepped-up military actions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere figures notably in the legislation.
Lawmakers backed an administration proposal called the European Reassurance Initiative, а $3.4 billion effort to increase the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon is planning to increase the number of combat brigades rotating into Europe, as well as station heavy weaponry and equipment in some places.
"I think the lack of debate about the European Reassurance Initiative is a reflection that there is a pretty broad consensus on what the administration has proposed," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "If anything, there may be people who want to add more money, not less."
Committee members also took aim at a key treaty that authorizes countries to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territory to monitor military forces. The Treaty on Open Skies has been used by both the United States and Russia to gather information, but U.S. officials in February publicly complained about a Russian request for a flight using advanced digital cameras.
“I cannot see why the United States would allow Russia to fly a surveillance plane with an advanced sensor over the United States to collect intelligence,” Mac Thornberry (Republican-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in February.
The bill passed by the committee on April 28 aims to cut off funding for cooperation with Russia on U.S. overflights until intelligence officials say there is no threat from the flights.
It also tackles the question of another major arms agreement: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. The United States has reported for the past three years -- most recently on April 11 -- that Russia has violated the 1987 treaty, which is considered a bedrock Cold War arms-control agreement.
Moscow has strenuously denied any violations, but the Defense Department has drawn up several options to respond to the alleged violations, including reportedly putting missiles back in Europe.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, meanwhile, has declined to implement the proposals. The House legislation aims to force the White House’s hand by withholding Defense Department funding.
Committee lawmakers also debated restrictions on the use of Russian-built rocket engines in launching U.S. military satellites. Since U.S. sanctions were imposed on Russia following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, American officials have proposed curtailing the use of the RD-180 engines, which are built by a Russian state-owned corporation.
But Air Force officials have said that there won’t be a viable American-built alternative to the Russian-built engines for several years.
“There’s no reason to line Putin’s pockets right now,” committee member Duncan Hunter (Republican-California) said. “Just realize that, when we vote yes or no, that if you vote yes, you are literally contributing directly to Russian military modernization.”
Lawmakers ultimately voted to raise the cap on the number of Russian rocket engines.
One other substantial policy change included a requirement that American women be eligible to be drafted into the military. Under existing U.S. law, all men between 18 and 25 years old are legally required to register with the federal government, potentially to be drafted in the event of war.
Though able to serve in all branches of the U.S. armed forces, women have long been barred from combat positions, as well as exempted from registering for the draft.
Late last year, however, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all combat positions would now be open to women for the first time. The bill passed by the committee on April 28 broadens the effort with a measure that would require women to register as well.
The 60-2 vote on the entire defense bill pushes it for a vote by the full House of Representatives, expected next month.
It would then head to the Senate, where John McCain (Republican-Arizona), who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, is widely expected to make more changes.