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Air Force Delays Final F-35 Decision Until Fall

Major General Steven Cray, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, spoke with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin about the role of F-35 jets in the future of the state. (Courtesy of VPR)

Major General Steven Cray, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, spoke with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin about the role of F-35 jets in the future of the state. (Courtesy of VPR)

By Conor Grant

The United States Air Force recently announced a postponement of plans to create a base for a number of F-35 fighter jets in Vermont. This announcement comes after months of debate about the suitability of Vermont as a home base for these planes.
Some Vermonters consider the selection of their state as the future home of these planes to be a tremendous honor, while others are worried that the planes will have a damaging impact on local communities.

The Air Force’s decision to postpone the opening of their base at the Burlington International Airport was undertaken partially to enable the organization of an additional public written comment period over the course of this upcoming summer to enable the public to voice their opinions on the issue.

“The process continues to be transparent, deliberate and repeatable,” said Major General Steven Cray, the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard. “Which is the best way to give decision makers all of the relevant and appropriate information.”

While the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark have contributed a collective equivalent of $4.375 billion toward the project, the United States is the primary financial backer of the roughly $40 billion project.

Due to the financial and military importance of the fleet of F-35’s to the United States military, discussion of an ultimate base for the aircraft began at an early stage.

Utah, Idaho, Florida, and South Carolina were also considered as potential host states for the base of the new squadron of F-35s.

In deciding between these five states, Air Force officials had to weigh airport capacity, cost and other environmental factors. In order to minimize costs, they tapped into pre-existing Air National Guard units. This requirement further narrowed the field of potential base locations to Jacksonville, Fla., Columbia, S.C. and Burlington, which houses the Burlington Air Guard Station.

The military chose to proceed with preliminary plans to situate the F-35 base in Vermont despite a significant local opposition to the project for a number of reasons.

The military cites the existence of an F-16 program at Burlington International Airport and the ability to coordinate and train with Canadian F-18s as some of the benefits to creating a F-35 base in Vermont. Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys — an accomplished state air militia dating back to 1946 — are an established air militia that will facilitate the establishment of an efficient and effective program. The pre-existing infrastructure and the access to training and support networks would make the project particularly cost-effective in Vermont.

F-35 advocates point to a number of other economic benefits to the program as justification for the jets in spite of their noise. Projections indicate that the F-35 program will create 266 new military jobs that will generate $3.4 million in salaries.

Many of the proponents of the proposed F-35 program argue that the influx of the new planes will be an important way to ensure the continued vitality of Vermont’s military in spite of budget cuts. A tentative Air Force budget for next year indicates a 5 percent cut in funding — which is a cause of concern for states like Vermont that have smaller military branches.

Attracting the F-35 program is significant not only because it brings a number of short-term economic benefits to the state, but also because it ensures the long-term presence of a robust military operation in Vermont.

“It’s not just another year to year decision on where to put planes,” said David Carle, a spokesman for Senator Patrick Leahy (D). “The F-35 changeover has been in the works for many years, and is changing the Air Force in many ways throughout the entire system.”

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D) saw the potential for an increased military presence in the state as a valuable opportunity for the state to remain involved in national military affairs.

“The F-35 is the Air Force’s future,” said Leahy. “And the Vermont Air Guard should be a vital part of the Air Force’s future.”
Not all people, however, are excited to see these changes — particularly over the skies of the Green Mountain State.

Critics of the F-35 project also believe that the military relied on flawed data, incorrect projections and political alliances to justify their decision. Opponents of the project claim that the placement of the coveted F-35 program in Vermont instead of a number of other suitable rural locations came about as a way to reward Vermont’s Senator Leahy for his vocal support of the F-35 program in the Senate.

Allegations that the military relied on falsified data are secondary to what most Vermonters consider to be the primary complaint made by Vermonters that the noise generated by the jets will disrupt life on the ground in the three towns most affected directly by the noise — Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski.

Unlike other proposed sites for the base where civilians don’t live in the area surrounding the airfield, the area around the Burlington International Airport is densely populated — so densely populated, in fact, that an estimated 7,000 Vermonters will live within an area deemed by a commission of officials from the Pentagon and other agencies to be “incompatible for residential use.”

People living under the direct space of these planes will likely experience a roar in excess of 65 decibels — which equates to the noise generated by freeway traffic, according to the Temple University Department of Civil/Environmental Engineering.

Residents of the high volume zones have also complained that the Air Force purposefully used outdated 2008 statistics rather than more recent 2011 statistics to downplay the size of the geographic area affected by the clamor of the jets.

Revised estimates of the environmental impact of the planes also predict that the planes will have a more damaging impact on air quality than was initially forecast, which has caused a wave of renewed protest within the state.

“Burlington was not the highest-rated base operationally or environmentally for the F-35,” pointed out Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel and member of the South Burlington City Council.

Attitudes about the noise levels vary between the numerous cities considered for the base — and within those communities themselves. Although many residents in the high volume zones that will be affected by increased noise have argued that the din will disrupt their lives, others have indicated that they would be happy to put up with the extra noise to support the military.

Mitch Shaw, a journalist for the Utah Standard-Examiner, indicated that he and many of his Ogden, Utah neighbors would be happy to put up with the increased noise.

“It may be noisier than what we have now,” said Shaw. “But it’s the sound of freedom.”

Despite continued protest from Vermonters living under the proposed flight path of the planes and the continued willingness of other communities to host the F-35s, the Air Force is projected to finalize its decision to establish the F-35 base in Burlington later this year.

In the event that Vermont is ultimately chosen as the home of the new F-35s, the squadron could take to the skies as early as 2015.

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