Grounded yet again by the Pentagon as unsafe to fly, the Air Force’s most expensive warplane, the experimental F-35 nuclear-capable stealth bomber is under increasing attack around the country, but especially in Vermont where citizens trying to protect local health and welfare are taking actions against the Air Force in federal court, in the state legislature, and before a state environmental board.
[Note: On Feb. 28, 2013, F-35 once more “cleared for flight.” According to the official statement: “The engine in question is part of the F-35 test aircraft fleet, and had been operated at extreme parameters in its mission to expand the F-35 flight envelope. Prolonged exposure to high levels of heat and other operational stressors on this specific engine were determined to be the cause of the crack.” Sounds like it cracks under stress.]
The F-35, a weapon of mass destruction with a lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion dollars, has already cost the U.S. some $400 billion and is considered a target of opportunity by some budget cutters and deficit reducers. With the March 1 sequester focusing minds across the federal government, a fancy warplane plane with outdated technology and an obsolete mission, is looking like an easy way to save more than $500 billion, especially if it can’t fly anyway.
Others suggest that the world’s most expensive weapons system is “Too Big to Kill, even though it’s a decade behind schedule and 100% over budget, with both measures getting worse. And as the Pentagon acknowledges, the country would be getting less for its money with the final plane, since it can’t meet its promised performance specifications. For the second time in a year, the Pentagon has lowered F-35 specs to a level the brass hope the plane will be able to meet.
And even as some national media like Time bring more attention to the failures of the F-35 program to live up to its promise in performance, cost, or delivery, a group of dedicated Vermonters are fighting their state and federal leadership to prevent hundred of Vermont homes from being destroyed as surely as if the F-35 had bombed them into oblivion.
Air Force Refuses to Reveal Relevant Data
For almost a year, the Air Force has refused to reveal relevant data that it used to pick Burlington, Vermont, as one of its top choices for basing the F-35, even though the Air Force’s own published analysis demonstrates that Burlington will suffer more than any other location socially, economically, and environmentally from any F-35 base established at the Burlington Airport, which is owned by Burlington, but actually located in two other cities that have no say in how it’s run.
For almost a year, Vermonters have appealed to the state’s Congressional delegation, all Democrats, to meet with them, review the issues, get the hidden data from the Air Force. Both U.S. Senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, as well as Vermont’s lone Congressman Peter Welch, have all endorsed the F-35 without showing any detailed understanding of the program. They have all refused to meet with opponents who have spent years studying the issue. They have been unwilling or unable to shake loose the information the Air Force holds secret.
Now the issue is before the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, where four plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to order the Air Force to release the relevant material. The complaint describes a pattern of Air Force stonewalling since the plaintiffs’ first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, 5 U.S.C. 552) request in mid-September 2012, as the Air Force, delayed, missed its own promised deadlines, and ultimately denied the request, and then repeated the pattern when considering the plaintiffs’ appeal.
With the Air Force saying it would decide the F-35 decision in the near future, the plaintiffs waited till mid-February for a decision on their FOIA request appeal. Having heard nothing further from the Air Force since mid-December, the parties took their case to federal court.
Comparison Depends on Seeing All Scoring Sheets
Although the Air Force provided some material in the plaintiffs’ initial request, the Air Force has refused to comply with this part of the request:
“Please provide copies of the scoring sheets used to rate each potential site for basing the F-35s, including but not limited to the Burlington Airport.”
The Air Force had released the Burlington scoring sheets to Senator Sanders in June 2012, and he had shared them with some constituents, but in response to the FOIA request for scoring sheets, the Air Force provided only blank pages – 205 of them.
Explaining the importance of seeing all the scoring sheets for all the locations, the federal complaint stated:
“… the scoring sheet for the Burlington International Airport was released to United States Senator Bernard Sanders, who provided it to members of the public. The scores assigned included purely factual information such as whether there are homes within the noise and safety areas and such as the total score assigned to each of the other airports.
“The scores released for Burlington are unambiguously erroneous — at the Burlington site, there are thousands of such homes but the scoring sheet erroneously stated there are none.
“The total score Burlington received thus may have put it at the top of the chart – in error. Thus it is necessary for the public to compare Burlington’s total score, which was released, to those of its competitors, which have not been.”
Air Force Neither Admits Nor Denies Errors
The Air Force has not publicly responded to or corrected its manifest error on the scoring sheet, even though its environmental impact report does not make the same error. The federal complaint also criticizes the Air Force for releasing some scoring sheets but not others, calling this a violation of the law:
“…there is no basis upon which the Air Force may lawfully refuse to produce the scoring sheets or any part of them, having released the Burlington scores…
“The decision to release only the Burlington scores transgresses the rule that ‘FOIA was designed to preclude a government agency from cherry-picking the materials to be made public. FOIA operates on the premise that government will function best if its warts as well as its wonders are available for public review.’ “
The Air Force is expected to answer the federal complaint by mid-April. The Air Force has also indicated it would announce a decision about the F-35 basing some time in the spring, although it has postponed that announcement twice already.
Meanwhile, it remains a fact on the ground that if the F-35 base were to become a reality, it would be in the in the midst of Vermont’s only urban area, where it would render upwards of 1,300 current residences “unfit for residential use.”
Vermont’s Democratic leadership – Leahy, Sanders, and Welch, as well as governor Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, and various Democratic state legislature have all expressed “concern” about the people whose homes will become uninhabitable due to jet noise – but none of them has yet shown any public interest in knowing the exact number of houses or the people who live there.
Committee on Military Considers F-35 Relevance
Appearing before the Vermont House Committee on General, Housing & Military Affairs on February 14, attorney James Marc Leas presented himself as a candidate for the open position of Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard and addressed the F-35 basing question which affects the future mission of the Vermont Guard. He urged the committee to hold hearings and make recommendations regarding the F-35 before the Air Force announces its decision.
Leas held up a copy of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that the Air Force paid $2 million to produce and emphasized that its is this document that provides the fact that are used by opponents of the F-35. Urging the committee to address the facts, he noted that
“It’s the Air National Guard that won’t discuss the facts that are in here and that are devastating to the people of Winooski, Williston, Burlington and South Burlington….
“The Guard has a mission statement, and I think the challenge for the Guard is to implement its own mission statement, which says that it will protect lives and property in Vermont, and that it will contribute to the community, and that it will protect the health and safety of Vermonters. That’s the mission statement of the Vermont National Guard.
“Having a National Guard that is attempting to bring in an airplane, that it knows from its own environmental impact statement – that it refuses to discuss – is going to destroy almost 3,000 homes and is going to tear up the lives of more than 6,000 people in Vermont is not consistent with that mission….
He urged the committee to hold hearings on the issue, as well as two resolutions submitted by legislators and referred to this committee, one resolution supporting the F-35 and the other suggesting that the state take the time to determine the impact of the base before making a decision.
New General Avoids Predecessor’s Fear-Mongering
The Committee on General, Housing & Military affairs later decided that the question of the F-35 and its impact on Vermont low income housing was not relevant to the committee. The committee is headed by two Democrats, Helen Head of South Burlington and John Moran of Wardsboro.
Leas was not chosen adjutant general for the Vermont Air National Guard, nor did he expect to be. He did get four votes. As he told the committee somewhat ruefully,“We have the facts. We have the arguments. But somehow our political leaders are immune to facts and arguments unless large numbers of people come out.”
The new adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Steven Cray, said publicly after his election that even without the F-35, the Vermont Air National Guard base won’t close, though its mission and size might change. This is a sharp change from his predecessor, Gen. Michael Dubie, who frequently warned the public to be afraid that, without the F-35, the base would close.
A little more than a year ago, Senator John McCain, R-AZ, commented on the F-35, also known as the JSF – Joint Strike Fighter, in remarks on the Senate floor: “In a nutshell, the JSF program has been both a scandal and a tragedy.”
McCain has softened his rhetoric since then, but he hasn’t retracted the characterization. And the F-35’s performance has not improved.
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