What Happens When You Get Too Invested in a Disaster Like the Vermont F-35 Base?
While it’s too soon, perhaps, to say that the over-budget, overdue, and under-performing F-35 joint strike fighter is in a political tailspin, having its biggest Senate booster accused of pushing for political pork at the expense of his poorer constituents hasn’t made the controversial stealth bomber’s flight path less bumpy.
According to the Boston Globe, the Air Force “fudged” its assessment of the Vermont Air National Guard Base in Burlington, Vermont, in order to give Vermont’s senior Senator, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, a political plum that could not be justified on its merits. Despite three years growing local opposition to basing an F-35 squadron of nuclear-capable stealth bombers in Vermont’s most densely populated area, Leahy has spent more years cheerleading the Air Force plan while at the same time refusing to meet with his unhappy constituents.
The Air Force first planned to announce its final Burlington basing decision in the fall of 2012, then pushed it back to the winter of 2013, and then to the spring. On April 18, four days after the Globe story went largely unrebutted, the Air Force announced that the decision would not be made until the fall and that there would be yet another public comment period during the summer.
Sen. Leahy, 73, who is legally blind in one eye, did not serve in the military. He is co-chair of the Senate’s National Guard Caucus, which has 88 members.
F-35 Getting Too, Late, Too Expensive, and Too Dysfunctional?
Outside of Vermont, the F-35 program continues to struggle in more basic ways. Its cost is already 100% over budget, having cost more than $400 billion since 2001, with the plane still in the testing phase. Technical problems have grounded it for extended periods this year. And foreign buyers, having planned on a $70 million plane, are reducing or cancelling orders as the cost has risen above $200 million each (although DefenseWorld.net reported that the U.S. offered F-35s to South Korea at a discounted price of $180 million).
Whether the Air Force decided to delay its F-35 basing decision due to the Globe’s allegations against Sen. Leahy is presently unknown, but the Senator has supported basing the F-35 at the Burlington Airport since long before the Air Force made Burlington one of its top basing candidates.
And Sen. Leahy has remained adamantly in support of the Air Force plan as it has become increasingly controversial over the past three years. He has consistently defended the F-35 while refusing to respond substantively to its associated problems, including excess noise, loss of property value, human health impairment, and environmental degradation.
No One Has Said Senator Leahy Has Done Anything Illegal
The charges against Sen. Leahy, made in a front page story in the Boston Globe April 14, are not charges of criminality, but rather of the familiar political corruption that passes for business-as-usual in Washington. In response, Leahy issued a brief non-denial denial, saying dishonestly:
“The Air Force selected the Vermont Guard as its preferred choice for the F-35s on the merits, based on the Vermont Air Guard’s unsurpassed record, its top-flight personnel and facilities, and its strategic location. Vague, anonymous, uninformed and rehashed conspiracy theories cannot change those facts.”
Elements of dishonesty in this statement include:
(1) The first sentence blurs the distinction between selecting the Vermont Air Guard as the first Guard unit to have the F-35, and the basing decision not yet made with regard to the Burlington Airport. That decision will at least purport to be based on other criteria entirely, include those in the environmental impact statement that assesses social, environmental, and health issues, among others.
(2) The case for a “strategic location,” in northern Vermont, next to the Canadian border, has yet to be made. Leahy and others typically praise the Air Guard for “its voluntary and near-constant response to the 9/11 attacks for 122 consecutive days.” While true, this omits the reality that the Air Guard responded only after the attacks. Earlier, when one of the hijacked airliners came up the Hudson Valley near Vermont, the F-16s in Burlington sat on the ground.
(3) “Vague” is just false. The critiques of the Air Force plans have been detailed and precise, whether presented by a former Pentagon planner, lawyers, reporters, or others. Leahy’s responses, when he has responded, have mostly been as vague as this one.
(4) “Anonymous_ — while the Globe story refers to two or more anonymous sources, it also quotes acting assistant secretary of the Air Force Kathy Ferguson and Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh III, both of whom acknowledge fact and processes errors that the Air Force needed to correct.
(5) “Uninformed” is almost laughable, since the most germane critiques of the basing proposal are derived from information provided by the Air Force in its environmental impact statement of March 2012, which is currently in the process of being finalized (a necessary element of the basing decision).
(6) “Rehashed conspiracy theories” is a wing nut straw man argument, since the core arguments against the F-35 require no conspiracies to be correct. All they require is bad judgment of one sort or another.
(7) Taken as a whole, Leahy’s statement actually means nothing. Although it’s constructed to push emotional buttons that could distract the casual reader from its emptiness, the careful reader will notice that it lacks relevant content.
The Record Opposing the F-35 in Vermont is Long and Detailed
Those who oppose basing the F-35 in a densely populated argue that that’s just a bad decision — as public policy, economic policy, military policy, or environmental policy. Their arguments largely go unanswered by any rational counter-argument.
In responding to the Globe story, the Senator’s office circulated a dozen or so supporting documents of limited relevance as well as one that outlines several basic issues to which Leahy apparently never responded substantively.
In February 2010, the chair of the South Burlington City Council, Mark Boucher, wrote to the Air Force, with copies to Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Gov. Jim Douglas, and others involved then in the F-35 planning process. Among other things, Boucher noted that the Burlington International Airport (BIA) was confined entirely within the borders of South Burlington, but that South Burlington had not even been informed of meetings of the interested parties, never mind invited to take part in a process whose impact would be felt most directly by South Burlington.
Boucher noted that: “For the last several years, the BIA has been purchasing and removing homes adjacent to the Airport using federal FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] noise mitigation funding.”
He discussed the impact of the “unfit for residential use” zone on city housing, putting more than 150 homes at risk. He described the area as comprising “the largest inventory of affordable housing in South Burlington.” (The 2012 Air Force environmental impact statement says that a minimum of 1,300 homes will become “unfit for residential use” as a result of the smaller of two F-35 basing plans.)
Do Their Elected Representatives Care Where or How People Live?
Anticipating the impact of an F-35 base in South Burlington, Boucher said in his 2010 letter:
“The City strongly opposes the loss of additional housing, especially without the replacement of similar housing…. The BIA is not only located in a residential neighborhood, but within close proximity to a neighborhood elementary school and a land development designed to be a new downtown for South Burlington.”
No high elected official in Vermont – not Sens. Leahy or Sanders, not Rep. Welch, not Gov. Douglas or his successor, Gov. Peter Shumlin, has even responded to this concern for people to have the peaceable enjoyment of their homes, much less has any of them proposed even the slightest solution.
By contrast, the Air Force at least acknowledges the issue and scores Burlington low for “environmental justice” because of “disproportionate effects on minority and low income individuals.” In other words, the Air Force acknowledges that the disadvantaged would once again be forced to subsidize the advantaged with their property or quality of life, or both. But the Vermont officials who are supposed to represent them do nothing.
There is no indication that anyone, including the Air Force, responded to council chair Boucher’s letter. Over two months later, in May 2010, Leahy followed up with the Air Force, beginning by assuring them that “I have long supported the Vermont Air National Guard and as a Vermonter am proud that the Air Force has selected Burlington….”
Lacking a Good Argument, Try Chasing a Chimera or a Shibboleth
In the fourth paragraph of his letter, Leahy gets around to expressing “my support for Councilman Boucher’s recommendations for future communications,…” without expressing support for anything specific. Then he adds:
“There has been a lot of information – and unfortunately, some rumors – circulating on websites and in the community about the F-35. Certainly, the more the Air Force can do to reach out to residents, businesses, and local officials to set the record straight and have a reasonable discussion about the facts, the more satisfied everyone will be with the process.”
The Senator does not give any further indication of what he thinks was not factual, and his own website does not offer any clarification of what he’s now apparently calling “vague, anonymous, uninformed and rehashed conspiracy theories.” In this respect, he’s no different from Sanders, Welch, Douglas, or Shumlim, although Shumlin made a show in the fall of 2010 of junketing to Florida to listen with ear muffs on to the F-35 taking off – he said it wasn’t as loud as he’d expected.
None of these elected leaders have requested an obvious, straight-forward, transparent idea – or even supported it three years ago when Council chair Boucher proposed it: “We request that the Air Force bring an operational F-35A to BIA so residents can judge the noise at landing and take-off for themselves…. I also believe such a visit would be quite popular.”
There is no indication the Air Force ever responded to this request.
Maybe the Question Should Be: Who Gets Hurt if There’s No F-35 Base?
More characteristic of the Air Force practice in this process is that it continues to withhold scoring sheets on which it based its original evaluation of Burlington Airport. While the Air Force has admitted some errors in the scoring, it has stonewalled any opportunity for an outside review.
Among the most active supporters of basing the F-35 in Vermont is a Burlington real estate mogul Ernie Pomerleau, whose firm is one of several that promoted a specious study by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., that argued that that the F-35 base would have no significant financial impact on homeowners near the airport in South Burlington.
Speculation in Vermont is that the Pomerleaus and other real estate interests stand to gain directly from depopulating the area around the airport and turning it into a commercial zone for an expanded airport. Pomerleaus are among Leahy’s in-laws.
Senator Sanders, whose support for the F-35 has often been more gingerly than Leahy’s, had this quote in a news item on his website on April 20:
“I’m not sure how accurate the Boston Globe’s article really was raising questions about Sen. Leahy’s role. I think he has denied that and I think he’s right. So I don’t agree with the basic tenet of the article. On the other hand I do believe that what we have always wanted is as much input as possible. We are a state where we think people have a right to be heard.”
That doesn’t sound like wagons that are circling.
[Update: On April 24, opponents of the F-35 called a press conference in front of Leahy’s office in Burlington. The speakers included a grandmother who has lived next to the airport for 40 years and Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben&Jerry’s Ice Cream. Leahy staffers responded with insults conveyed to reporters.]