Carter on retaining the best; Another coalition emerges in the Middle East; Militias still in Tikrit; Where to put Iranian stockpiles?; ‘Doolittle Raider’ passes at 95; And a bit more.

Is Saudi Arabia preparing to send ground troops into Yemen to battle Houthi insurgents?

CNN this morning: “Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both spoken about the possibility of putting boots on the ground before. And on Saturday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said he expected coalition troops to be in Yemen within days.” That, here.

Arab leaders meeting in Cairo said they would form a joint military force to battle Islamic militants, like the Houthis. WaPo’s Erin Cunningham, Heba Habib and Ali al-Mujahed: “It is a dramatic step to quell the unrest that has broken out in the wake of the region’s uprisings, but some analysts warned it could exacerbate the conflicts that have polarized countries and left hundreds of thousands dead.” More here.

The joint force sets “the stage for a potentially dangerous clash between U.S.-allied Arab states and Tehran over influence in the region,” AP, here.

Meantime, Arab leaders are already claiming a major win in the fight against the Houthis saying Saudi-led airstrikes have destroyed all of Yemen’s fighter jets and Scud missiles sites. WaPo here, and a little more from the WSJ here.

Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group to D Brief on Yemen’s now-destroyed air force: “It was a Fourth World air force, with obsolete, poorly maintained aircraft, miserable readiness and minimal capabilities.”

Yemen had hodgepodge of Soviet and Russian fighter jets and some old U.S.-made F-5s Freedom Fighters. Now that Yemen needs a new air force, would a friendly government be interested in, say F-16s? “A friendly government might indeed be in the market for F-16s, which are common in the region and would offer good capabilities at a good price,” Aboulafia said. “But it might be some time before the government is sufficiently stable to buy, accept, and operate these planes. They also might be deemed to big a risk to take delivery of aircraft in this class.”
Are the Saudi-led airstrikes enough to beat back the Houthis? The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee doesn’t think so. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., on CBS’s Face the Nation: “I think there is a real prospect of civil war here. It is probably unlikely that these airstrikes alone are going to be sufficient to repel the Houthis." The Hill has more from Schiff’s Sunday show appearance, here.

And late last week, a U.S. Air Force HH-60 rescued two Saudi pilots after their F-15 crashed into the Gulf of Aden on Friday. WSJ’s Julian Barnes with the deets: “The jet appears to have been taking part in operations over Yemen, however, the defense official wouldn’t say why the airmen ejected from the F-15 or why the plane went down over international waters.” More here.

Welcome to this special Nashville edition of The D Brief, by Marcus Weisgerber with Ben Watson. Why are we in Music City? More on that below. Gordon Lubold is off this week so Weisgerber and Watson are working the wheels of steel together for the next five days.

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Ash Carter is wheels up for a domestic trip today as part of a national discussion he’s kicking off on building the “force for the future.” SecDef Carter leaves today for Philadelphia, where he’ll return to his old high school, Abington Senior High, outside Philly, to speak about his vision for what the Defense Department needs to do to attract “the best and brightest” from diverse communities around the country into public service, we’re told.

He’ll then head to Fort Drum, N.Y., where he is expected to hear first hand from soldiers and their families who have deployed repeatedly over the last many years and speak with them about how to keep the best people in.

Ultimately, he’ll visit Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, or IVMF, for a roundtable discussion about the best ways to transition military personnel back into civilian life. IVMF has recently done a significant study, we’re told, on the challenge of maintaining an all-volunteer force during a time of protracted wars and the impact of the growing civilian-military divide that’s widened as a result.

Carter will also speak with students at Syracuse from the journalism and public policy schools to “inspire them to think about how they in their own careers can and will interact with the military,” we’re told.

Staffers on a plane – Mag. Gen. Ron Lewis, Senior Military Assistant; Stephanie Miller, Special Assistant for Personnel and Readiness; Carl Woog, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications, Stephanie Dreyer, Director Digital Media & Strategy; Lars Anderson, DoD public affairs; James Eby, trip director, and Aaron Sherman, speechwriter.

Reporters on a plane – AP’s Lita Baldor, Reuters’ David Alexander, USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook, Stripes’ Jon Harper, Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman.

This Week: Carter is expected to unveil a new 401(k)-style pension plan for Defense Department retirees—as well as new retention bonuses for cyber soldiers, USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook reports, here.

Carter’s concerns about retaining the best and brightest have him weighing the merits of waivers—not unlike what was done in the 2006-2007 time frame—for potential recruits with lesser crimes on their record. AP’s Lolita Baldor, here.

Meantime, back in Nashville, the Army Aviation Association of America annual summit kicks off here this morning. It’s the who’s who of the Army helicopter world. Speakers include Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army vice chief of staff; Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, head of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker and Hedi Shyu, the Army acquisition executive. All of the big, and small, defense firms are here too.

Expect the conference to focus on two key issues: The controversial Army Aviation Restructure Initiative and the future of Army aviation. Defense companies are already closely watching two big money projects. The first is Future Vertical Lift, a whole new family of helicopters that will replace the Blackhawk, Apache, Chinook and Kiowa. The other is the development of a more powerful and efficient engine for the Blackhawk. Follow @MarcusReports for more on what’s happening.

With the deadline now less than two days away, parties to the P5+1 Iran talks Sunday made only modest progress on a centrifuge count while various other details—like what Iran will do with uranium stockpiles—are yet to be resolved. Reuters this hour from Switzerland: “Western officials said Iran suggested it would be willing to accept keeping fewer than 6,000 centrifuges in operation, down from its current figure of nearly 10,000, and to ship most of its enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia. But senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi told reporters dispatching stockpiles abroad ‘was not on Iran's agenda.’

“Britain, France and the United States want any removal of U.N. sanctions to be automatically reversible, but the Russians dislike the idea of automaticity because it would weaken their veto power, a Western official said.” More here.

NYT’s David Sanger and Michael Gordon: “[E]ven if a deal was reached by late Tuesday, American negotiators made clear that this was just an interim step, and that any final agreement would require months of negotiations over what were once called ‘technical agreements’ but are now clearly the source of continuing disagreement.” That, here.

What four things can bring an Iran deal across the finish line? Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione for Defense One: “Hyperventilation about the deal has reached new extremes, as opponents flood the news media with new issues and new charges. But to conclude a deal in the next few days, the diplomats will have to solve four major challenges: (1) Preserve the unity of the P5+1... (2) Deal with Iranian politics...” Read the rest, here.

The decision to call in U.S. air support for Iraq’s Tikrit offensive, on the condition Iranian-backed militias depart the immediate battlefield there, drastically reduced the number of forces available to clear ISIS out of the city. WaPo’s Loveday Morris from Tikrit: “Some Shiite militiamen have drawn back from the fight to protest U.S. involvement. While that may suit the American commanders, who do not wish to be seen giving air cover to Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, Iraqi officers on the ground are struggling to plug the gap while negotiations take place to persuade the militiamen to return to the battle.

“‘Right now we need them, and honestly, they’ve achieved a lot of victories,’ said Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saidi, a commander with Iraq’s special forces who is heading the operation to retake the city. ‘If we were a complete army, I’d say otherwise.’ …Two battalions of soldiers were being sent to the university to replace the retreating militiamen, army commanders said. A group of 54 volunteers from the southern city of Karbala was dispatched to help hold defense lines at the university… But there are doubts as to whether that is enough to compensate.” More here.

Pentagon spox Col. Steve Warren on Friday: “These are primarily Shia militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place...Urban warfare is difficult. It’s rough, hot, bloody, tiring and exhaustive work. No one should expect this to be an overnight thing.” More from Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, here.

For more on the Pentagon’s “strange bedfellows” in both the Tikrit and Yemen offensives, check out The Washington Examiner’s Tara Copp, here.

Oman is the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that’s elected not to participate in the military offensive protecting Yemen. So what are they up to? Humanitarian assistance on the margins of the conflict, The Middle East Eye reports, since “Oman has traditionally played a mediating role in the GCC, maintaining ties with Iran and facilitating dialogue to resolve disputes among regional rivals...” More here.

A “jihadist coalition” claim to be in control of the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib—site of new claims of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn with more on the Jaysh al Fateh coalition, here.

After a largely peaceful election, despite a one-day delay on account of temporarily faulty polling stations, the vote counting for Nigeria’s election results has begun. WSJ’s Patrick McGroarty and Heidi Vogt: “Early, partial returns showed Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and former military dictator, leading President Goodluck Jonathan, but it was unclear whether they were representative of the full vote. A winner must secure both a majority and 25% of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s states.

“Millions of voters waited patiently for hours on Saturday to cast their vote. But at least 350 of more than 120,000 polling stations were forced to reopen on Sunday after delays the day before. Those problems included faulty scanners, tardy poll workers and militant attacks. Some frustrated voters also clashed with security forces… Election commission spokesman Kayode Idowu said he expected full election results by Tuesday.” Read the rest, here.

Nigeria’s biometrics used for the election proved so problematic they failed to recognize even President Goodluck Jonathan when he tried to cast his vote. More on those faulty polling stations and reports of sporadic violence in Boko Haram-held regions, from Quartz’s Yinka Adegoke, in Defense One, here.

See also: CNA Corporation just this morning released a paper rolling up the results of a small group discussion in mid-February on ways the U.S. can help Cameroon’s anti-Boko Haram work in the region. Cameroon, the authors note, “has also shown more political will to combat Boko Haram than Nigeria. Therefore, the United States should continue to assist in the training and equipping of Cameroonian forces while simultaneously stressing the importance of addressing the political, economic, and ethno-religious tensions in the country (including those between the north and south) that could contribute to the growth of Boko Haram within Cameroon…” Read the rest, here.

Who’s up to what today? Congress is on Spring Break, so nothing doing there for the next few days; and State Secretary John Kerry remains in Switzerland for the fevered Iran talks… Meantime, retired Gen. Wesley Clark heads to the Atlantic Council to talk Ukraine following his recent return from talks there with President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian military commanders. That happens at 4:30 p.m. (Details/livestream, here.)

In Eastern Europe, 120 U.S. Army Stryker vehicles and more than 500 American troops are driving “a meandering, 1,100-mile trek through six countries, stopping in towns and villages along the way to mingle with local people and reassure allies by showing that the American military’s presence was more than a rumor.” NYT’s Rick Lyman in Poland, here.

For your ears only: The Point-Counterpoint debate on arming Ukraine, with former National Security Council, Defense Department, and State Department staffer Kori Schake (now of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution) and Ryan Evans over at War on the Rocks, in conversation at the new podcast series, “Chess Clock Debates,” here.

Soldiers in Bowe Bergdahl’s former unit tell CNN his apparent emerging defense—that he walked off his Afghan outpost to spread word of wrongdoing to a commander elsewhere who would hear it—makes little sense to them. That, here.

RIP, sir: "Doolittle Tokyo Raider" Lt. Col. Robert Hite died at the age of 95 yesterday. AP’s Lucas Johnson II: “Hite was among 80 men aboard 16 B-25 bombers whose mission was to strike Japan in April 1942. While the attack inflicted only scattered damage, it was credited with boosting American morale while shaking Japan's confidence and prompting strategy shifts less than five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eight Raiders were captured and three were executed; one more died in captivity and three others were killed after crash-landing or ditching at sea. Hite was among the Japanese captives and was imprisoned for 40 months...” More here.