Kurds launch offensive in north Syria; US buys more bombs; China mulls new ADIZ; NATO spending rises, somewhat; and a bit more.

America’s Kurdish and Arab allies in Syria are making ISIS and Turkey nervous with a new offensive in the north. Thousands of U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have opened a “major new front” in the war against the Islamic State in northern Syria, near the border town of Manbij, Reuters reports this morning. The group, composed of Kurdish YPG militiamen and some Arab rebels—numerical breakdowns vary—is supported by a “small number of U.S. special forces” who are looking to cut off the Islamic State’s “last tract of territory” on the border with Turkey. Recall last week that the SDF began moving west from the edge of Raqqa governorate when photos of U.S. special operators wearing YPG patches surfaced online, causing a public relations incident for the Pentagon as it juggles the demands of its allies in Turkey with the need to work with an effective force inside Syria to defeat ISIS.

About the target: “It’s significant in that it’s [the Islamic State’s] last remaining funnel” to Europe, a U.S. military official said.

There’s already some tension with this plan (of course) as Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying Ankara backed the operation. A BBC reporter clarified that somewhat, noting Turkey isn’t contributing anything to the Manbij op. Currently, the joint force has taken 16 villages and sits just 9 miles outside of the border town, Reuters writes.

After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying,” a U.S. official said. “So you’ll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land.” More from Reuters, here.

The SDF has also launched an offensive to capture the IS-held Tabqa air base, about 25 miles southwest of Raqqa, AP reports, adding the air base is a “major weapons depot” for ISIS, which seized Tabqa in 2014 before killing at least 160 captured Syrian soldiers.

Get to better know the U.S.-backed “New Syrian Army”—which the Washington Post’s Liz Sly notes is calling themselves the NSyA “to avoid confusion with another agency”—and how open source intelligence suggests they’re bringing a fair amount of American and Jordanian equipment to the fight. They’re also careful not to give away pertinent info on social media, in sharp contrast to other U.S.-backed rebels, for example, operating north of Aleppo. All that, via the OSINT investigators at Bellingcat, here.

Separately, Turkey says its airstrikes and artillery killed more than a dozen ISIS fighters across the border, AP writes off reports from Turkey’s “Anadolu Agency, citing military officials, [which] said Wednesday that the strikes by U.S.-led coalition jets targeted IS positions north of the city of Aleppo, destroy[ed] a tank, two mortar positions, a headquarters building and three vehicles. It said the strikes came after Turkey’s military had determined that IS was preparing to attack Turkish territory from the region. The report could not be independently verified. Turkey has not explained how it counts casualties in Syria.”

After the UN floated the possibility of air drops to the nearly 600,000 citizens living in besieged cities (since the Assad regime is blocking aid in many locations), it’s past time to admit this is one of the least-effective ways to deal with the unmitigated fighting, writes Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute. His recommendation: “urgently enhancing the military capabilities of moderate opposition groups is ultimately the only way to effectively counter the Assad regime’s use of food as a weapon.” That, here.

Back stateside, the phrase “active combat” enters the parlance. The Pentagon said Tuesday that two of its troops were injured from artillery fire in both Iraq and Syria over the weekend—but, “In both cases, these were people operating behind the forward line of troops. They were not on the front lines; they were not engaged in active combat,” Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis, said. “They were not out trigger-pulling offensively.”

However, “both incidents involved indirect fire from Islamic State militants,” Military Times reports, adding some context to a distinction most Americans are apt to find little difference in, especially since both troops’ injuries were extensive enough to prevent them from returning to the fight. “Neither incident involved a large-scale attack or evidence of an unusually large ISIS force,” Davis added. More on all that, here.

In Iraq, the UN says there are 20,000 children trapped in Fallujah—where NPR says “horrific conditions” persist for those caught between Iraq’s troops and some 700 ISIS fighters believed to be holed up in the city just 40 miles west of Baghdad. Elisabeth Koek of the Norwegian Refugee Council—a group that helps the citizens who have been able to escape Fallujah—explains people crying at the sight of bread, here.

From Defense One

Just released: the full agenda for June 10’s Defense One Tech Summit. Come hear speakers from Silicon Valley to Crystal City — Ash Carter, DOD, NSA, DARPA, USAF, and more — at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Get the full schedule, registration page, livestream link — here.

The B-21 bomber should be unmanned on Day 1. So far, U.S. Air Force leaders have said only that it will eventually be able to fly without crew. That’s a waste of resources, if not out-and-out risky. Read that, by CNAS’ Kelley Sayler and Paul Scharre, here.

White House slates $19B for cyber defense. The Cybersecurity National Action Plan seeks a 35% increase over last year’s proposed budget. Next step: find contractors to help. Via NextGov, here.

Don’t privatize the Veterans Health Administration. The healthcare industry wants to take over a system that – for all its problems – still outperforms the private sector. Former Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV makes the argument, here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1215, Mongols under Genghis Khan captured Zhongdu (present-day Beijing). Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.

U.S. Air Force places massive bomb order. Last week, we told you how the Pentagon is raiding its global bomb stockpiles so it has enough weapons for the airstrike campaign against ISIS. This week, the Air Force added $1.5 billion to its contract with Boeing for Joint Direct Attack Munitions, the bolt-on tail kits that transform “dumb bombs” into satellite-guided, precision weapons. The deal, which includes tail kits for allies, boots the ceiling of a previously awarded $1.7 billion JDAM contract to $3.2 billion. The contract announcement did not disclose the specific number of JDAMs the Pentagon plans to buy.  

Beijing may soon impose an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, reports the South China Morning Post, citing “sources close to the People’s Liberation Army” and a report in Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review. Two years ago, China established a similar ADIZ over the East China Sea, sending shock waves through the international circles. That, here.

That news comes as defense leaders prepare for two big conclaves this week: the 3-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, and the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing. At the latter, U.S. officials can expect “pressure” from Chinese officials angered by freedom-of-navigation patrols past their new artificial islands. Reuters reports, citing official Chinese media.

From Popular Science: China’s coast guard is getting a new armed cutter. “In recent disputes with its neighbors, China’s civilian maritime forces, such as its Coast Guard and ‘fishermen militia,’ have played key roles in acting on behalf of Chinese claims in the East and South China Seas.” As well, to accompany its new aircraft carriers and destroyers, China is acquiring a fleet of heavy support ships that will enable naval and amphibious assault operations around the world.

About those fishermen: Last Friday, an Indonesian frigate fired at and then boarded a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of poaching fish in Indonesian waters. Via The Diplomat, here.

NATO is poised to “designate cyber as operational domain of war,” which is something the U.S. did five years ago, Reuters reports ahead of the alliance’s summit in Warsaw next month.

ICYMI: Elsewhere across the alliance, defense spending is up, but it’s still not at targeted levels, the Financial Times reported in an interview with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The latest numbers: “Last year, Nato’s European allies spent $253bn on defence compared with a US spend of $618bn. According to the 2 per cent guideline, European countries should be spending an additional $100bn annually on their militaries. The current spend is equivalent to around 1.43 per cent of gross domestic product… Nato did not provide exact figures for 2016 because it said the data were provisional and had been shared with the alliance on a confidential basis.”

The Kremlin has apparently pressured Twitter into shutting down parody accounts that mock Mother Russia, Buzzfeed reported Tuesday after @DarthPutinKGB went dark. Twitter did not respond to requests for comment on the move, but the AP has a bit of context for Russia’s escalated crackdown on dissent, which convicted 233 citizens in 2015 for sharing posts on social media—up from 92 in 2010. More from AP, here.

Finally today: a military exercise in Finland sparked fears of an invasion last week as a resident of one of its islands watched “a large boat [that] docked near his house and unloaded a group of uniformed men carrying rucksacks and what looked like guns,” the BBC reported Tuesday. “When the group headed into the forest, Mr Winberg hopped into his own boat, fled the island and called the emergency services. ‘Of course I was scared,’” he told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper.

Adds the BBC: “What isn’t clear is whether Kamsholmen was a planned stop on the military’s route. While the local Ostnyland newspaper quoted a defence spokesman as saying the island wasn’t meant to feature in the exercises, other reports suggest organisers had intended to land there but forgot to tell residents.”

Meanwhile, the coffee company Gevalia “has spotted an unlikely marketing opportunity in the news. The company says it will send free packs of coffee to anyone who had ‘unexpected military guests.’”

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