Iran rattles the Strait of Hormuz; ‘Landmark’ U.S. expansion in the Philippines; More F-35 delays?; And a bit more.

Iran’s seizure of the container ship Maersk Tigris and its crew is a solid and mystifying break from naval norms in the dangerous Strait of Hormuz, Defense One’s Brad Peniston (aka: @navybook) reports. Iranian military seized the ship Tuesday after firing shots across its bridge as it passed through the strait, and then commandeered the bridge, CNN reported.
The Danish shipping company Maersk said this morning its crew is safe, but Iran’s motivations have perplexed Washington and an intelligence community on alert for arms smuggling.

In a surprise move, Saudi Arabia’s King Salmon this morning replaced his foreign minister with his ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, and altered the line of succession for the Gulf monarchy, according to state TV. The move consolidates his family’s power in the country even further. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly has more.
Meantime, Saudi-led strikes hit the airport runway in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, crippling one of the country’s last functioning airports to prevent an Iranian plane from landing and possibly rearming the Houthis, who are under a UN-imposed arms embargo. The strikes, which an airport official said ruined the runway as an entry point now, could also jeopardize the arrival of aid to the country in the throes of a worsening humanitarian crisis. More from The New York Times
Houthi rebels advanced further into the port city of Aden overnight, using tanks and sniper fire to kill at least a dozen civilians, residents told Reuters this morning. The Houthis say they’re investigating public figures in Yemen, including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for aiding the Saudi coalition. That quick one, here.

American jets were dispatched in what appears to be a show of force over the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, where the Taliban have gradually made advances since last Friday, surrounding an entire battalion of Afghan National Army troops. Afghanistan’s interior ministry told the AP this morning insurgents from Pakistan also flooded the province and claimed fighting has already killed 200 militants in Kunduz. Concern from officials peaked yesterday when a district governor in Kunduz reportedly requested NATO airstrikes but was rebuffed over fears the Taliban had progressed too close to civilians to green light coalition strikes. That dynamic appears to be holding as officials told Reuters U.S. jets have been in the air over Kunduz the past three days, though they have not dropped any bombs on insurgent positions.  

From Defense One

The death of American Warren Weinstein from a “signature” drone strike over Pakistan in January should be all the U.S. needs to halt the practice in favor of what are known as “personality” strikes, explains David Rohde, who witnessed a drone strike a few dozen yards from where the Taliban held him captive in South Waziristan.

And here are four key areas the U.S. and Japanese militaries will step up their cooperation after the agreement announced this week. That via Marcus Weisgerber and Watson, here.

What have four weeks of bombing Yemen achieved for the Gulf coalition? A damaged Houthi force, sure; but more than this, an abysmal stalemate in bad need of a new approach from Riyadh, writes Middle East analyst Daniel DePetris.

Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin are swatting away amendments to the Iran bill as lawmakers watch Tehran with an even more skeptical eye following this week’s developments at sea. National Journal’s Ben Geman has more.

Security clearance holders declined by more than 10 percent last year in a “dramatic” break from recent years, Government Executive’s Eric Katz reports.

Welcome to Wednesday's edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Defense One. If you'd like to subscribe, click here or drop us a line at you want to view The D Brief in your browser, you can do that, here.

The U.S. has secured what’s being seen as a “landmark expansion” in the Philippines, adding access to eight more bases for troop rotations that further firm up the Pentagon’s Asian pivot. Two of the bases are located near disputed islands in the South China Sea. More than 11,000 U.S. and Filipino troops are in the middle of an training exercise, which Military Times’ Lance Bacon calls “the largest amphibious exercise in at least 15 years.”
President Barack Obama again worked to downplay the threat to China from Washington’s renewed defense ties with Japan. He did, however, continue pressing his desire to see Beijing work out its South China Sea disputes in a far less unilateral fashion in the future, telling China that “That’s the wrong way to go about it.” The Washington Post’s Steven Mufson and David Nakamura with more.
And today shortly before 1 p.m., the Pentagon’s Christine Wormuth talks “America's Security Strategy in the Indo-Pacific” at the second annual security forum from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. The all-day event will be held at DC’s Four Seasons Hotel. Things get under way at 8:30 a.m., and includes retired Adm. Dennis Blair, Michèle Flournoy, Adm. Harry Harris and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. More here.

Sen. John McCain promised new legislation that shifts control of the U.S. drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon. The measure, a likely amendment to the defense authorization bill—which the McCain’s Armed Services panel is set to roll out in May—would follow up on Obama’s own suggestion the program change hands during a speech at the National Defense University in 2013. More from The Hill’s Martin Matishak.
Scholars from 15 different think tanks published an open letter to Pentagon and Congressional leaders pressuring fast action on BRAC closures, reducing the Pentagon’s civilian workforce and moving ahead with compensation reform. Read the letter, which also ran in today’s print edition of Politico, online right here.
The Air Force will have to shelve F-16s and delay its deployment of the F-35 if the House Armed Services Committee carries through on its plan to continue funding the A-10 “Warthog,” Air Force officials told The House added $683 million to its FY16 defense bill to keep the A-10 in the skies against the wishes of service officials.

Senators rejected an amendment last night that would raise the nuclear deal with Iran to the status of an official treaty requiring Senate confirmation. The amendment failed on a vote of 57-39, RFE/RL reports.
The seizure of the Maersk Tigris is an unmistakable reminder of what kind of negotiator the U.S. is dealing with in Iran, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board warned last night here.

The Assad regime is having to rely increasingly on Hezbollah to do its fighting as it faces setback after setback across Syria, NYT’s Anne Barnard, Hwaida Saad and Eric Schmitt report.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says Kiev's leaders fear a broad Russian advance on Ukraine following repeated statements from monitoring officials that fighting is escalating yet again in the east. That from WSJ’s Laurence Norman.
Russia, meanwhile, is about to show off its new tank that allegedly features an unmanned turret capable of firing guided missiles or shells of varying sizes. More from BBC ahead of Russia’s WWII Victory Day parade in Red Square on May 9.

Nigeria’s military is evacuating some 200 girls and more than 90 women from a forest in the northeast where troops reportedly destroyed four Boko Haram camps. While the rescue is certainly welcome news, the group are reportedly not the Chibook girls that first raised Boko Haram’s international profile more than a year ago.

And this American paratrooper will spend his last days in the Army cleaning and mopping for his extra duty punishment after bringing his pet goldfish on his final jump at Fort Bragg. Military Times’ Michelle Tan has the story, along with a strange little joke at the end, right here.