Today's D Brief: NATO defense ministerial, day 1; Russian spies in Turkey; US troops attacked in Syria; Cold War 2.0; And a bit more.

NATO defense chiefs are charting the alliance’s future with a rare in-person meeting today and tomorrow in Brussels. Find the full agenda here, or catch the livestream via NATO’s site, here.

New: An “innovation fund” with more than a billion dollars. The goal for the fund is “to support the development of dual-use emerging and disruptive technologies,” according to the Defense Department’s preview

Coming soon: A formalized plan to repel Russia if it decides to attack in both the Baltic and Black Sea regions. The plan is known officially as the “Concept for Deterrence and Defence in the Euro-Atlantic Area,” and the broad strokes of it could be approved as early as Thursday, with regional details not expected until late 2022, Reuters reports from Brussels. 

“This is being adapted to the current behaviour of Russia,” said German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “and we are seeing violations particularly of the air space over the Baltic states, but also increasing incursions over the Black Sea.”

Worth noting: “None of this year’s ministerial sessions are dedicated to discussing the rise of China,” the Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian reports—and emphasizes that “this year, there is a greater existential challenge facing the alliance: what the partnership should look like in a world after the Afghanistan war.” 

Around the alliance: Romania’s president just asked his acting defense minister to end a political stalemate and form a centrist government. That means retired four-star Gen. Nicolae Ciuca now “has 10 days to draft a Cabinet lineup and seek a parliamentary vote of confidence,” Reuters reports from Bucharest. 

Turkey says it busted a team of four Russian assassins and spies for allegedly trying to assassinate “several Chechen dissidents living on Turkish soil.” That’s according to The Daily Beast’s Allison Quinn, who noticed the report from Turkish state-run media (Anadolu). 

Also involved: A man from Uzbekistan and another from Ukraine. And if charged, the men could face up to 20 years in prison. More at TDB, here.

And Turkey’s president is threatening to eject 10 ambassadors today—including those for the U.S., Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden—because they issued a joint statement on Monday about jailed activist Osman Kavala. “Kavala has faced a string of alternating charges linked to 2013 anti-government protests and a failed military coup in 2016,” Agence France-Presse reports, noting that he’s “been in jail without a conviction since 2017.”

From Defense One

The Military is Preparing for a ‘Space Superhighway,’ Complete with Pit Stops // Tara Copp: Those hubs would do more than refuel spaceships; they are seen as key to staying ahead of China.

Navy Seeks To Improve Firefighting After ‘Preventable’ Bonhomme Richard Disaster // Caitlin M. Kenney: Naval Safety Center gets a promotion, while ships’ crews will be trained to respond to pierside fires.

China Ambassador Nominee ‘Concerned’ By Beijing’s Nuke Buildup // Jacqueline Feldscher: In his confirmation hearing, Nicholas Burns also talked about more American help for Taiwan and NATO’s views on China.

Sikorsky Exploring Ways to Link Next-Gen Helicopters to F-35 // Marcus Weisgerber: It’s part of Lockheed’s push to network all of its weapons.

Russian Corruption Makes It Harder to Crack Down on Ransomware // Patrick Tucker: Hackers who learned skills in government service are branching out “for their own personal enrichment,” Pentagon cyber leader says.

The US Should Have Invited Russia to Join Its Counter-Ransomware Initiative // Oleg Shakirov, Council on Foreign Relations: The Biden administration recently hosted a ransomware summit which excluded the Russian government. The United States should have done more to involve Russia in ransomware negotiations.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1805, the British Royal Navy defeated nearly three dozen ships from the French and Spanish fleets during the Battle of Trafalgar, in waters near the southwestern edge of Spain. The engagement is often framed by historians as a tactically bold and formative moment for the Royal Navy, which would spend the next nearly 100 years dominating the high seas before entering into a naval arms race with Germany ahead of the First World War

U.S. troops attacked in Syria. A few rockets allegedly hit a base in southern Syria that houses American troops on Wednesday, AP’s Lita Baldor reported. None of the Americans were injured, but it’s unclear if the Syrian forces at al-Tanf were hurt.
Reminder: The U.S. outpost remains in place ostensibly to fight ISIS, though it’s location also location also presents a target for Syrian and Iranian-linked troops in the region. 
Says one critic: “The longer U.S. forces remain in Syria on an open-ended and ill-defined mission, the more likely an American will be pointlessly killed or seriously injured by a rocket or drone attack,” said Daniel DePetris of the Defense Priorities think tank in Washington. “The only responsible course is a full withdrawal, saving U.S. troops from needless risk.”
By the way: Returning Syrian refugees are also at enormous risk, according to a report published Wednesday by researchers at Human Rights Watch. The bottom line: “Among 65 returnees or family members interviewed, Human Rights Watch documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, 3 kidnappings, 5 extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances, and 1 case of alleged sexual violence.”
HRW’s advice: “All countries should protect Syrians from being returned to face violence, torture, and halt any forced returns to Syria.” Read on, here.
Related reading: 

Even in a full pandemic year, the U.S. Army was able to meet its active duty recruiting goal, service officials announced Wednesday, almost three weeks after the fiscal year ended.
The goal was 485,900 active troops, and the Army ended the year with 486,490 soldiers, according to Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, deputy chief of staff for personnel. The National Guard eclipsed its goal of 336,500—ending with 337,525. The Army Reserve, however, was about 5,500 short of its 189,800 target.
The Army was also able to add more drill sergeants this fiscal year, and that seems to have had a noticeable impact on basic training graduation rates, with the past year's attrition coming in at 5.5% compared with 10.8% for FY2020.

More “in a pandemic year” data: Cold War 2.0 edition. The U.S. exported $124 billion in goods to China last year, and it imported about $434 billion. That means despite the tariffs and tough trade talk from the former and current U.S. presidents, China remains America’s largest supplier, and its third-largest consumer behind Canada and Mexico, the New York Times’ David Sanger reported this week. And that, Sanger writes, is partly why this “Cold War” with China is fundamentally different from America’s last one with the Soviets. Story here.

China is now believed to have tested its globe-orbiting missile twice this summer: once on July 27, and a second time on Aug. 13, Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times reported Wednesday (paywalled), citing “four people familiar with US intelligence assessments.”  

And lastly today: South Korea tried and failed to put a dummy satellite into orbit today. The three-stage rocket took off at about 5 p.m. local time; however, the final stage “appeared to shut down 40-50 seconds early, so the payload did not reach the speed needed for its target orbit,” Reuters reports. Seoul’s space agency will try again in May. More here.