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Air Force Errors Escalate Vermont Fight over F-35 Base

by William Boardman, published
Credit: Bill Oetjen

The Pentagon has admitted it was wrong about basic facts relating to basing the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber in Vermont, so of course the announcement was made late last week in a story spun to be about public participation. While most Vermont media missed the story entirely, the Burlington Free Press got the scoop and missed its significance, focusing instead on the extension of the public comment period on the Air Force’s environmental impact statement.   Mission accomplished?

The environmental impact statement has been sharply criticized for weeks by retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Greco, whose critique pointed out false information on the scoring sheets on which the statement’s conclusions were based.  In a locution worthy of Watergate, Pentagon spokesman Col. Frank Freeman explained that those erroneous score sheets and  no longer applicable.”

The Air Force refuses to make them public.

The significance of this news began to appear in a lengthy commentary by attorney James Leas on the blog “F-35 in South Burlington.”   Leas points out that the interview with Col. Freeman is entirely consistent with Greco’s critique, and rebuts none of it, even though the Pentagon had flatly denied Greco’s assertions up until now.   Greco is also chair of the South Burlington city council, which is concerned that the city will suffer significant environmental, economic, and human damage if the advanced F-35 fighter is based in Burlington.

In similarly inept reporting, WCAX-TV reported that the public comment period was extended, but omitted any hint Pentagon error, never mind admission of error, in its report.   Greco’s principled and now confirmed criticism has earned her considerable public hostility in recent weeks, mostly along the lines of this one that accompanied the incomplete WCAX story:  “Why do they have to make so much noise and can't they just stay up there all the time flying high. I am talking about the loud mouth protesters and not our defense.”

The comment period that was previously closed as of June 20 is now re-opened till the end of August.  Comments may be emailed to Nicholas Germanos at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

One of Greco’s key criticisms was that according to Air Force scoring sheets, there were no structures within either the F-35 crash zone or the F-35 unsuitable-for-residential-use noise zone.  At the same time, the Air Force environmental impact statement states that these areas include 2944 homes, 6675 people, 5 schools, 6 churches, and many businesses.   That closely approximates reality on the ground.

Col. Freeman said the information about the areas being clear of buildings and people came from the National Guard office in Washington, D.C., who got their information from the Vermont National Guard in Burlington. So far there is no explanation for why the Vermont Guard, which desperately wants the F-35 in Burlington, managed not to account for the populated communities over which they fly almost every day.

Public support for the F-35 continues to be strong, but the Air Force’s admissions of error haven’t had time to sink in yet.  An anonymous poster campaign asks people to “Please show your support for keeping the F-35 in Burlington,” by signing a petition, although it doesn’t explain how to “keep” something that doesn’t yet exist.

The F-35 is not yet operational despite already being the world’s most expensive weapons system ever.  The F-35 had had development difficulties that put it currently a decade behind schedule and 100% over budget, with no firm readiness date yet.  But testing of F-35 prototypes has been accelerating in recent months, apparently with some success and without serious setback, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Public opposition also remains strong, and a measure off just how strong was the turnout Thursday night to protest at the Democratic Party fundraiser at the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington. U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, and Governor Peter Shumlim have all reflexively supported the F-35 basing without articulating any compelling rationale.

The organizers said their message for the state’s titular leaders is “Stop the F-35!  Support not destroy neighboring communities.”

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