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Politically Thinking: Delegation mum on jet controversy

The Vermont Air National Guard facility at the Burlington International Airport is one of six locations being considered by Air Force officials in Washington as bases for the new F-35 fighter jet, which is planned to become operational in 2015. Burlington and Hill Air Force Base in Utah are the Pentagon’s two preferred locations for the F-35.
The F-35 basing decision is becoming quite controversial in Chittenden County. Gov. Shumlin, Sens. Leahy and Sanders, and Rep. Welch all support the deployment of the new planes in Burlington. They see the F-35 as an economic development opportunity for Chittenden County. A staff of at least 800 to 1,000 technicians will be needed to maintain the planes, which are extremely complex, with onboard computers running 24 million lines of code. The elected officials see these as the type of jobs Vermont needs — high-tech jobs that pay very well.
F-35 supporters say that the Air Guard presence at BTV could be substantially downgraded if the F-35 is based elsewhere. The F-16 planes that are now based in Burlington will be phased out as the F-35 comes online. F-35 supporters note that the closing of Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1995 was a major blow to the economy of Clinton County, N.Y,, and that Chittenden County could suffer a similar fate if the F-16s are phased out and not replaced.
Residents and local officials of the three communities located closest to the airport — South Burlington, Winooski and Burlington — are very concerned about the noise impacts of the F-35 compared with the current F-16. The city council in South Burlington, where the airport is located, has voted against deployment of the F-35 at BTV. They believe that the Air Force’s environmental impact studies downplay the extent of the noise that would be produced by an F-35 taking off at full power or coming in for a landing at low altitude.
The school board in Winooski, which is located near the north end of the main runway, also came out against the F-35. The city councils in Winooski and Burlington, as well as Burlington’s new mayor, Miro Weinberger, have not taken a stand on the F-35.
The Vermont congressional delegation’s position on this issue is particularly interesting. Leahy, Sanders and Welch are normally not ardent defenders of military programs, although they certainly look out for the interests of Vermont troops when they are deployed overseas. Defense budget analysts in Washington note that the F-35 program is likely to run billions of dollars over budget, and is likely to fall behind schedule, and that the Pentagon may not be doing an adequate job of overseeing Lockheed-Martin, the plane’s manufacturer. The governments of Canada, Britain and Australia have all decided within the past year to scale back their purchases of F-35s because of budgetary concerns.
Normally, Leahy, Sanders and Welch would be leading the opposition in Congress to a defense program about which as many budget and procurement questions have been raised as is the case with the F-35. However, when the Vermont delegation looks at the Air Force’s list of proposed F-35 bases, they see that the alternatives to Burlington are facilities in Florida, Idaho and South Carolina, all states with overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegations that are strong Pentagon supporters. Apparently the Vermont delegation has decided that prudent silence about the F-35 budgetary issues, and defending the program as an economic development opportunity for Chittenden County, are most likely to result in the Air Force’s deciding to base the new fighter jets in Burlington.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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