Saudi gets aggressive in Yemen; Bergdahl tried to escape 12 times; Brad Carson apologizes for chems; Kirby drives south; And a bit more.

"It was the co-pilot's intention to destroy this plane," a French prosecutor said this morning of the downed jet in the Alps. But, he said: "It was a voluntary action on the part of the co-pilot... He is not known as a terrorist.” The Guardian has live updates of a press briefing taking place this hour, here. And, more below.

The Saudis and as many as nine other nations began an airstrike campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in an effort to blunt their advance and restore the Hadi government. One day after Yemeni President Hadi reportedly fled the country by boat, Saudi Arabia, which has been fearful of the growing instability right across the border, launched an airstrike campaign that aims to stop the Houthis. Saudi forces had amassed along the border with Yemen, to prevent spillover violence, but the country’s mounting an airstrike campaign wasn’t necessarily expected. But the move framed the contours of what could become a proxy war inside Yemen between regional powers – Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries against Iran.

Reuters this morning: “Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck Shi'ite Muslim rebels fighting to oust Yemen's president on Thursday, a gamble by the world's top oil exporter to check Iranian influence in its backyard without direct military backing from Washington.

“Riyadh's rival Iran denounced the assault on the Houthi militia group, which it backs, and made clear the kingdom's deployment of a Sunni coalition against Shi'ite enemies would complicate efforts to end a conflict likely to inflame the sectarian animosities fuelling wars around the Middle East.

“Warplanes bombed the main airport and the nearby al Dulaimi military air base of the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, residents said, in an apparent attempt to weaken the Houthis' air power and ability to fire missiles.” More here.

The NYT’s Mark Mazzetti and David Kirkpatrick: “...By Wednesday morning, Houthi forces had seized Al Anad air base, which until recently had been used by American counterterrorism forces, about 35 miles from Mr. Hadi’s refuge in Aden, the country’s second-largest city.” More here.

The U.S. is not part of the effort, but is working in close coordination with the Saudis. Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had created a special cell with the Saudis. Meehan, in a statement last night: “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”

What’s a joint planning cell? A defense spokesman told The D Brief late last night that the U.S. is playing a “limited role” and that this is not something that the U.S. is in any way leading. The spokesman to The D Brief: “At the request of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] the [Defense Department] will participate in a Joint Combined Planning Cell to monitor the current situation in Yemen and facilitate communication between the US and GCC. The JCPC will function as a fusion center for security activities and operations to synchronize efforts in response to the Yemen crisis. We will not get into operational specifics however our support is limited and not in a combat role.”

This is a good analysis/primer of Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, by Stratfor, here.

In the meantime: U.S. airstrikes actually begin over Tikrit. First it was surveillance, then yesterday there was the news that the U.S. was planning airstrikes. Then they actually began late yesterday in a sign that the U.S. recognizes the Iraqis need help – and that Iranian assistance ain’t necessarily that great.

The WSJ’s Julian Barnes, Raja Abdulrahim and Matt Bradley: “U.S. warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Tikrit in what American officials said was a sign of the failure of Iranian-backed forces to retake the city. The offensive to retake the city has been stalled for more than a week and American officials on Wednesday said they began the strikes after the Iraqi government formally requested help. The U.S. in recent days began providing video feeds and other intelligence to Iraqi forces, drawing the Americans into closer coordination with Iranian-allied Shiite militias spearheading the campaign.

“The U.S. intervention is a blow to Iran, which has played a major role in commanding the Shiite militias and has also supplied weapons. Those militias account for about 20,000 of the 30,000-strong force involved in the operation.”

What does Tikrit say about Iran, according to the U.S.? U.S. officials say the operation in Tikrit shows how weak Iranian support is for Iraq’s government. With the U.S. now stepping up its support in the operation, there’s hope it will drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran.

A U.S. official to the WSJ: “Tikrit shows the complete failure by Iran to produce results on the ground.” More here.

Just this morning, Central Command put out this vid of airstrikes against a militant compound in Tikrit: watch it here. And here’s another, here.

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Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was charged with one count each of desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” nearly nine months after returning to the U.S. Defense One’s Lubold: “For the desertion charge, Bergdahl faces a maximum punishment of a reduction of rank to private, forfeiture of all pay and confinement of five years. The other charge, that of “misbehavior before the enemy,” also carries a maximum of life in prison. Bergdahl has not been paid by the Army until sometime after his capture and it’s expected that he is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s likely that under whatever punishment Bergdahl is given, he will lose that money and be dishonorably discharged. But it’s somewhat less likely that Bergdahl, held by the Taliban for almost five years, would see any jail time…” Read the rest, here.

Bergdahl tried to escape a dozen different times, including one attempt that lasted more than a week, according to a letter provided by his lawyer to The New York Times: “‘Without food and only putrid water to drink, my body failed on top of a short mountain close to evening,’ Sergeant Bergdahl wrote… ‘Some moments after I came to in the dying gray light of the evening, I was found by a large Taliban searching group’ … [that] hit him, tried to tear out his beard and hair, and returned him to his captors.

“‘I was continuously shown Taliban videos…Told I was going to be executed. Told I was never going back. Told I would leave the next day, and the next day told I would be there for 30 years.’ …The case will now go to Fort Sam Houston, Tex., for a hearing that is similar to a grand jury in a civilian court. After that, a military tribunal will determine whether Sergeant Bergdahl should be court-martialed.” More here.

John Kirby, who left the Pentagon’s press podium this month, would have been in the thick of it yesterday with Bergdahl – and loved every minute of it. But instead, he was  driving south to his home-state of Florida with his wife, Donna, to visit family and participate in an event at his high school in St. Petersburg. Washington likely hasn’t seen the last of Kirby, but for now he’s in transition to whatever comes next.

Said Kirby to the Tampa Tribune’s Howard Altman about yesterday’s news about Bergdahl, likely somewhat wryly: “I heard about that.”

Read Altman’s piece about Kirby and how he sees life after the podium, here.

Meantime, here’s an interesting development: Brad Carson, the undersecretary of the Army, apologized to U.S. veterans of the Iraq war for their exposure to chemical weapons. The NYT’s C.J. Chivers: “The under secretary of the Army on Wednesday apologized for the military’s treatment of American service members exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq, and he announced new steps to provide medical support to those with lingering health effects and to recognize veterans who had been denied awards.

[Carson] acknowledged that the military had not followed its own policies for caring for troops exposed to old and abandoned chemical munitions that had been scattered around Iraq, and he vowed improvement.”

Here’s part of what Carson said: “To me, the scandal is that we had protocols in place and the medical community knew what they were, and yet we failed in some cases to implement this across the theater… That was a mistake, and I apologize for that. I apologize for past actions and am going to fix it going forward.”

Why Carson? Because then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appointed him to lead a panel to work to identify service members who had been exposed to chems in Iraq after the NYT raised the issue in a big investigative piece in October. Read today’s Page Oner here.

Check it out: Any veterans who believe they may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents while in combat in Iraq—and who have had trouble getting care or treatment can contact Carson directly, NYTs C.J. Chivers says this morning on his own site: “So, then, if you are a veteran who may have been exposed to sulfur mustard, sarin or chlorine, take a moment and cut-and-paste this email address: It leads directly to the under secretary’s in-box, which from my experience I can say he checks himself and is not filtered by staff.” More (including a backgrounder on the matter), here.

Non-martial bliss: Fort Bliss got a new commander last month after the previous one was fired after investigators found he had “cheated on his wife, misused a government credit card and failed to register private firearms he kept in his on-base residence.” Kevin Lilley for Army Times with more, here.

Ash Carter today at 12:30 will deliver the keynote at the State Department’s Global Chiefs of Mission Conference. What he’ll say, according to a senior defense official: “He’ll respond to the House bill passed last night and argue that stashing defense funding in overseas contingency operations will fail to provide the Department the ability to plan and invest in critical modernization efforts. He will also draw the link between a strong economy, education, and health care system and our national security, including the future health of our all-volunteer force. Secretary Carter firmly believes that Congress must overturn sequestration not just for the Pentagon but for State and agencies across the government.” Watch it on the Pentagon Channel, here.

$46 billion of waste? This morning, John McCain will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to talk about one of his favorite things: acquisition reform.

Here’s a taste of what McCain will say about the “ambitious steps” he hopes the U.S. will take to make some “meaningful changes” to the acquisition system: “Many of our military’s challenges today are the result of years of mistakes and wasted resources. According to one recent study, the Defense Department spent $46 billion between 2001 and 2011 on at least a dozen programs that never became operational. And what’s worse, I am not sure who, if anyone, was ever held accountable for these failures…”

And the R&D numbers ain’t great, McCain will say:The Defense Department is facing an emerging innovation gap. Commercial [research and development] in the United States overtook government R&D in 1980, and now represents 80 percent of the national total. The top four U.S. defense contractors combined spend only 27 percent of what Google does annually on R&D.” Watch McCain at CSIS at 8:30 this morning here.

More of who’s up to what today if you scroll to the bottom.

A senior French military official said a pilot was locked out of the cockpit of this week’s tragic crash of a GermanWings plane with 150 people on board.  But so far, no credible indications the crash was a result of terrorism. NYTs Nicola Clark and Dan Bilefsky with the latest, here.

U.S. drops 60K leaflets over ISIS' base in Syria. USA Today's Tom Vanden Brook: "The leaflet drop near Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital, took place on March 16. An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter dropped a specialized leaflet-dispenser bomb for the first time in Syria, according to Col. Tadd Sholtis, an Air Force spokesman... The leaflets depict recruits to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, being fed into a meat grinder... Another sign [on the leaflet] reads, "Now serving 6001," and the man in the front of the line drops a ticket with that number, Sholtis said." More here.

Meantime, defense hawks versus fiscal hawks: defense hawks won. The NYT’s Jonathan Weisman: “House Republicans beat back protests from fiscal hawks and narrowly passed a budget that increases war spending but slashes domestic programs and begins to privatize Medicare with a goal of balancing the federal books in nine years.” Read the rest here.

The House passed their budget last night, drawing jeers from the White House for its “gimmicky” workaround the dreaded sequester. Tara Copp for The Washington Examiner, here.

Did anyone care? Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made that speech to Congress yesterday. But Hill staffers noticed the meager turnout of reporters to cover the event in what was seen as an embarrasing showing of interest in the Afghan president’s appearance, historic for its signaling of a completely new relationship with modern-day Afghanistan. It might have been because it’s been all-Ghani all the time for the last few days – first at the Pentagon then at Camp David, then again at the White House. And the press’ attention may have been diverted by Bergdahl and events overseas – like Yemen.

But Defense One cared: Molly O’Toole covered the event and wrote that midway through Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s address to Congress, congressional doorkeepers were still quietly directing pages and staffers to fill seats between U.S. lawmakers—a marked contrast to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing-room-only audience in early March. Defense One politics editor Molly O’Toole: “‘[B]ecause of the dispute between the president of the United States and the prime minister, whether the president was informed or not about it — great political theater,’ [Sen. Lindsey Graham] said, explaining the congressional attention deficit between Ghani and Netanyahu. ‘…I wish it would’ve gotten the same attention as the prime minister’s speech because Americans are still dying in Afghanistan.’

“Among the no-shows on Wednesday was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas… [whose] office confirmed he did not attend and was not in town, saying, ‘He did give away his ticket, though.’” More here.

A new generation of defense leaders are taking impressive steps to shore up Europe’s security, Derek Chollet, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, writes in Defense One: “One such leader is Norway’s Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide. In office since 2013, she has quickly established herself as one of NATO’s rising young (age 38) stars… and has pushed Norway to spend more on defense, hold tough against Russia and stay engaged in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

“Another defense leader to watch is Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen… Last summer she was instrumental in Berlin’s decision to resupply the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with lethal assistance… [and] has also worked to maintain Germany’s leadership in northern Afghanistan.” Read the rest, here.

America’s surveillance programs are undermining human rights across the globe, even as the State Department calls advancing internet freedom a “foreign policy priority,” Alex Sinha of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch argues in Defense One, here.

A new report ordered by Congress says the FBI could stand to speed up its integration of intelligence collection and analysis in the fight against terrorism in the states. AP’s Eric Tucker: “The report looked at five terror plots and attacks in the last few years, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. It identified lapses in communication and coordination among different offices of the FBI… Even though the FBI cultivates confidential sources for intelligence purposes, no human sources provided actionable intelligence to stop or prevent any of the five plots, it found.” More here.

Who’s doing what today? State Secretary John Kerry begins again a round of talks with his Iranian counterpart on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions… the House Armed Services Committee talks readiness posture with each service’s vice chief today at 8 a.m. (line-up and live stream here) … Sen. John McCain hits up the Center for Strategic and International Studies a half hour later to talk 114th Congress’ defense priorities (more here)… Retired Gen. John Allen reviews the counter-ISIS strategy with the House Foreign Affairs Committee at 8:30 a.m. also (more here) … HASC’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee talks aviation modernization at 9 a.m. (line-up and live stream here)… the Senate Armed Services Committee reviews CENTCOM, AFRICOM and SOCOM budgets with Gens. Lloyd Austin, David Rodriguez and Joseph Votel at 9:30 a.m. … the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee hears from Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Ray Odierno on the Army’s budget at 10 a.m. … HASC’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee talks technological advantages at the Defense Department at 10:30 a.m. (full roster and live stream here).

Also today: Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani hits up the Council on Foreign Relations in NYC at noon (catch it live here)… Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the State Department at 12:30 p.m. … Defense Information Systems Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, Jr., speaks at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Central Maryland Chapter luncheon at 1 p.m. in Greenbelt, Md. … Ghani’s Kabul cohort and Afghanistan CEO Abdullah Abdullah heads to Brookings for a 2 p.m. discussion. Live stream link, here.