The Washington Postand the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with Defense Secretary Robert Gates announcing major changes to the Pentagon budget that would shift the military's focus away from big, expensive weapons systems so it can dedicate more resources toward fighting irregular or guerilla wars. The budget clocks in at $534 billion, a 4 percent increase from last year, but involves so many cuts to some of the Pentagon's best-known weapons programs that a big political fight seems almost inevitable. The Los Angeles Timesleads with the powerful earthquake that hit central Italy yesterday and killed at least 150 people. The historical town of L'Aquila was near the quake's epicenter, and many of its landmarks, including centuries-old churches and buildings, were damaged or destroyed.
USA Todayleads with data from the Federal Aviation Administration that show there's been an increase in the number of aircraft that hit large birds. From an average of 323 such collisions in the 1990s, the number increased to 524 per year from 2000 to 2007. Proportionally, the numbers are quite small. In 2007, for example, out of 58 million flights there were 550 instances of airplanes hitting large birds, and only 190 of them caused damage. But the government data only contain a fraction of total collisions since reporting the incidents is voluntary. The New York Timesleads with a new poll that shows Americans are more optimistic about the economy since President Obama was inaugurated. Two-thirds of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, and 39 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, an increase of 24 points since mid-January. Although people are clearly concerned about job losses, 20 percent think the economy is getting better, a 13-point increase, while 34 percent think it's getting worse, a 20-point decrease. It's common for new presidents to enjoy a honeymoon period, but the "durability" of Obama's support is particularly notable, especially since it comes "at a time when anxiety has gripped households across the country," declares the paper.
The LAT says the budget outlined by Gates yesterday involves the "most sweeping changes in defense spending priorities in decades."Gates said his goal was to change the "priorities of America's defense establishment" by taking money away from weapons that he described as "truly in the exquisite category" while putting more resources into ones that may not exactly be cutting edge, such as drones, but are more appropriate for fighting unconventional battles in places like Afghanistan. Gates would spend more money on intelligence and surveillance programs while making deep cuts to the U.S. missile defense programs and the Army's Future Combat Systems. The cuts would be felt in a variety of military branches. For example, Gates recommended that production should end on the Air Force's F-22 fighter jets, the C-17 cargo plane, and the Navy's new generation of stealth destroyers.
Gates said he's "just trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table." Indeed, despite the tone of the coverage, it's not as if the Pentagon is suddenly ending all preparations for a conventional war. The LAT helpfully specifies that under Gates' plan, 50 percent of the budget would be used to prepare for conventional threats, while 10 percent would go to irregular warfare, and 40 percent to weapons that could be used in both scenarios.
The NYT points out that previous defense secretaries have been prevented from implementing widespread changes by members of Congress who don't want their constituents to lose jobs. "My hope is that members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole," Gates said. Although the WP says that the response from Capitol Hill was "restrained" yesterday, there was still some criticism from key lawmakers.
Besides the specific cuts, Gates made it clear that part of his goal is to overhaul "a procurement process that he and congressional leaders have decried as being too heavily influenced by powerful contractors," as the WSJ puts it. In a separate front-page piece, the WP points out that the budget would "reverse a contracting boom" that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, as Gates wants to replace private contractors with full-time civil servants. "The reduction of nearly one-third of the contractor workforce at the Pentagon is going to be a mortal blow to companies that have built their businesses through outsourcing," a defense consultant tells the WP.
As Italians sifted through the rubble left by the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit the mountainous Abruzzo region, attention immediately turned to whether some of the damage could have been prevented. Last week, a newspaper published a scientist's prediction that a major earthquake was imminent because of the high concentration of radon gas. But many experts disagree that radon gas can be used to effectively predict earthquakes, a position the government seized on as it fought back claims that it should have taken the warnings more seriously. In a piece inside, the LAT talks to several experts who say that the theory the Italian scientist used to predict the quake has long been discredited.
The NYT and WP go inside with the release of a confidential 2007 Red Cross report that found medical officers were intimately involved in the torture of detainees at the CIA secret prisons, which amounted to a "gross breach of medical ethics." The report was posted on the Web site of the New York Review of Books last night. The Red Cross said that the medical professionals "condoned and participated in ill treatment" and sometimes "gave instructions to interrogators to continue, to adjust or to stop particular methods." One law professor said the report amounted to "a disturbing confirmation of our worst fears about medical professionals' involvement in directing and modulating cruel treatment and torture."
Nobody fronts news out of Baghdad, where six car bombs exploded in Shiite neighborhoods yesterday and killed more than 30 people. The WP notes that the "breadth and coordination" of the attacks "bore the hallmarks of a campaign of violence reminiscent of those mounted during Baghdad's bloodiest days in 2006 and 2007." And the LAT points out that the attacks "recalled Baghdad's dark period … when bombings claimed dozens of lives on any given day."
USAT reports that military researchers used live pigs to study the connection between roadside bombs and brain injury. During an 11-month study, the researchers put body armor on the pigs, strapped them to Humvee simulators, and blew them up. The research helped the military determine that body armor doesn't make brain injuries worse and is, in fact, critical to surviving explosions.
The LAT takes a look at how hip-hop has quickly become popular in the Middle East as "the vernacular of American rap music and street culture has infiltrated the lives of young people." Although they cite famous American artists, such as Eminem and the late Tupac Shakur, as influences, the lyrics in Middle Eastern rap often have more to do with everyday hardships than sex and money. Palestinians, for example, often rap about life in refugee camps. "It is the rap not of the gangsta and his trove of drugs and half-naked women," notes the LAT, "but of brash young men whose defiance coexists with tradition."