WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate on September 18 strongly backed a $700 billion defense policy bill that calls on the Pentagon to fight Russian propaganda and start building a new cruise missile in a move critics say will lead to the demise of a major Cold War treaty.
The 1,215-page National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by 89 to 8, also includes a provision broadening the government's ban on using Kaspersky Lab software in government computers.
Under the cruise missile provision, the Defense Department is authorized to spend $65 million to begin development of a new ground-launched cruise missile in response to allegations that Russia has been violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Russia has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that it has tested and deployed a missile that violates the landmark agreement, known as the INF, demanding more evidence from Washington. It also in turn has accused the United States of violating the treaty with certain launch systems being deployed to Eastern Europe.
Ahead of the vote, a group of arms control experts and former U.S. government officials warned that building a new missile would hasten the demise of the treaty. A pair of senators co-sponsored an amendment that would undo the cruise missile authorization, but it never came up for a vote.
The bill also directs the Defense Department to report to Congress on Russian attempts to spread “disinformation or propaganda, through social media applications or related Internet-based means, to members of the Armed Forces with probable intent to cause injury to the United States or advantage the Government of the Russian Federation.”
That provision reflects growing alarm in Washington about Russian propaganda efforts ever since а U.S. intelligence report released in January concluded that Russia engaged in a hacking-and-propaganda campaign to try and sway the presidential election.
The ban on Kaspersky software extends to the U.S. military a ban on civilian government contractors' use of the software that was announced by the Department of Homeland Security last week.
Under the homeland security order, government agencies have 90 days to start removing the software from agency computers.
The Kremlin has condemned the ban as a violation of international trade laws and company founder Eugene Kaspersky has repeatedly denied that his company, one of Russia’s most successful technology firms, has connections to Russian intelligence agencies.
The defense bill includes a proposal to let the Pentagon spend up to $100 million on deepening U.S. security cooperation with the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three are NATO members bordering Russia which have sounded alarms about nearby Russian military activities and have called for more support from both NATO and the United States.
The bill also maintains funding for Ukrainian military support and authorizes the treatment of injured Ukrainian military personnel in U.S. military facilities.
The legislation also calls for $60 billion to fund wartime missions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other places, and $8.5 billion to further build up U.S. missile defense systems.
The bill received strong backing from both Democrats and Republicans, a show of bipartisan cooperation that contrasts to the uncertainty and disagreement over many other Washington matters since Trump’s election.
While the Russian- and European-related measures were not controversial, other parts of the bill address controversial issues such as President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender troops in the armed forces.
Some parts of the bill must still be reconciled with a defense policy bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives, though no major changes are expected.