Overnight Defense: Esper announces new steps on diversity in military but memo silent on Confederate flag | Defense bill amendment would sanction Russians over bounties | US accuses Russia of planting landmines in Libya

Overnight Defense: Esper announces new steps on diversity in military but memo silent on Confederate flag | Defense bill amendment would sanction Russians over bounties | US accuses Russia of planting landmines in Libya

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Overnight Defense: Trump reportedly considering replacing Esper after election | FBI, Air Force investigating after helicopter shot at in Virginia | Watchdog says UK envoy made inappropriate comments on religion, race, sex Trump eyes replacing Esper after election: reports MORE announced several steps Wednesday aimed at improving diversity and inclusion in the military -- but was silent about what has become the most high-profile debate on the issue.

In a memo released by the Pentagon on Wednesday, Esper ordered the military services to stop using photos in packets used to choose who gets promoted, following the Army’s earlier announcement that it would stop using photos in those records.

Esper also instructed the military to review whether grooming standards are racially biased, undertake a review of the military's equal opportunity office and train leadership to discuss and address issues of racial justice.

“Diversity and inclusivity in the ranks are not merely aspirations, they are fundamental necessities to our readiness and our mission success,” Esper wrote. “The actions I am directing are a necessary first step, but hard work remains, and we will continue to learn as we move forward."

What’s not there: The memo made no mention of racially divisive symbols such as the Confederate battle flag.

Reports last week said a draft memo was circulating in the Pentagon that would ban the flag at all Defense Department property.

CNN also reported Tuesday night that Esper was set to unveil a policy as soon as this week aimed at barring racially or socially divisive symbols in public places on military installations, but that it was unclear whether the policy would specifically address the flag.

Top generals have been keen to ban the flag -- US Forces Japan this week joined US Forces Korea and the Marine Corps in going ahead and banning it before Esper acts -- but the issue has become more sensitive as President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE defends the public display of Confederate symbols.

Reminder: Even if the Pentagon doesn’t ban the flag, Congress might force the department’s hand.

The House Armed Services Committee, in a voice vote with no debate, voted to include a Confederate flag ban in its version of the annual defense policy bill.

Still, there’s no similar ban in the Senate version, so it’s possible the ban won’t survive bicameral negotiations to reconcile the two versions.

NDAA AMENDMENT CHECK IN: The House Rules Committee announced Wednesday it will meet virtually Friday to prepare the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for next week’s floor debate.

The number of amendments that have been filed on the bill is up to 732 as of Wednesday afternoon.

Notable among new ones, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Trump reportedly considering replacing Esper after election | FBI, Air Force investigating after helicopter shot at in Virginia | Watchdog says UK envoy made inappropriate comments on religion, race, sex Watchdog: Trump's UK envoy made inappropriate remarks on religion, race, sex Allegations roil progressive insurgent's House bid MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMaxine Waters expresses confidence Biden will pick Black woman as VP Bill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities Waters rips Trump, GOP over mail-in ballots: 'They'll lie, cheat and steal to stay in power' MORE (D-Calif.) filed an amendment that would impose sanctions on several Russian officials in response to the alleged bounties on U.S. troops.

The measure would create an exception for sanctions if the administration certifies to Congress that Russia was not responsible for offering payments or rewards for the killing of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The amendment would also require the attorney general to request Interpol red notices, the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, for officials in the Russian military intelligence agency said to be responsible for the bounties.

US ACCUSES RUSSIA OF PLANTING LANDMINES IN LIBYA: Speaking of Russian escapades overseas, the U.S. military upped its efforts Wednesday to call out alleged Russian activities in Libya.

U.S. Africa Command (Africom) accused Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group, which the United States alleges is state-sponsored, of planting landmines and improvised explosive devices in and around Tripoli.

The Wagner Group is supporting rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army in its fight against the U.N.-backed Libyan government.

Africom also released several photos of anti-personnel mines and IEDs it said were found on the outskirts of Tripoli since mid-June.

“The Russian-state sponsored Wagner Group is demonstrating a total disregard for the safety and security of Libyans,” Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, Africom’s director of operations, said in a statement. “The Wagner Group’s irresponsible tactics are prolonging conflict and are responsible for the needless suffering and the deaths of innocent civilians. Russia has the power to stop them, just not the will.” 

Russia denies any involvement in the Libya conflict or state sponsorship of mercenaries.

Context: Africom started leveling accusations against Russia related to Libya in May.

First, Africom accused Moscow of sending fighter jets to Libya to provide close air support and offensive fire for the Wagner Group.

Then, in June, Africom further blasted the use of the aircraft, saying there are concerns they are being flown by inexperienced pilots, which raises the risk to civilians.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Ellen Lord, under secretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, will participate in a virtual fireside chat with the Ronald Reagan Institute at noon. https://bit.ly/393U4PB

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