Editorial: Military Strategy; Questions Emerge About Basing of F-35s

A Boston Sunday Globe story last week raised questions about whether the Air Force’s decision to base the nation’s first Air National Guard squadron of F-35 fighter jets in Vermont was made not on the merits but rather to cultivate the state’s influential senior U.S. senator, Patrick Leahy.

A spokesman for Leahy later told the Burlington Free Press that the senator “has made no attempt to influence the process. To the contrary, he has joined the delegation in several letters asking the Air Force to adhere to the process and to listen to all Vermonters.”

Careful readers will note that while the two versions may seem contradictory, both could be true and very well may be.

The gist of the Globe’s story was that the selection of Burlington for the coveted prize over more than 80 other military bases was preordained despite a supposedly objective process in which potential sites were scored on operational and environmental criteria. In particular, the Air Force relied on outdated data that dramatically understated the effects of noise from the F-35s on the residential communities surrounding Burlington International Airport, where the Air National Guard is based. The new planes are significantly louder than the F-16s they would replace: The Globe reported that projected sound levels are so high that local officials predict that several thousand nearby homes would fall in a zone designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as “incompatible for residential use.”

Why Burlington instead of, say, South Carolina, Florida or Alabama? The Air Force says the decision was made strictly on the basis of objective criteria and not as a favor to Leahy, who is not only the longest-serving member of the Senate but also a senior member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense, which exerts oversight over Pentagon spending.

Leahy, who is also a longtime champion of the National Guard, has advocated strongly for basing the F-35s in Vermont, as have the governor, the state Legislature and many business leaders and groups. They not unreasonably fear that 1,100 jobs could be lost if the Air National Guard base were to close when the F-16s are phased out over the next 15 years. The F-35 squadron would presumably guarantee a continued Air National Guard presence in Burlington.

In any case, the Air Force is now re-evaluating its decision in light of revised estimates of the environmental impact of noise and operational factors such as the fact that the nearest weapons depot is at Fort Drum, N.Y., which would require trucking missiles and other weapons 200 miles to Burlington.

Although the Globe account was based partially on anonymous quotes from Pentagon officials, they are not the only ones who think that the process that led to Burlington’s selection was flawed and possibly rigged. The City Council in South Burlington, within whose city limits the airport is situated, is opposed to the F-35s. City Councilor Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, raised the question a year ago after discovering errors in the Air Force’s scoring sheets and environmental impact statement for Burlington.

We’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if in fact the fix was in for Burlington, it would not be the first time in American history that the military has made a basing decision for political reasons, in particular to get in or stay in the good graces of a powerful member of Congress. And, of course, the member of Congress would not have to have asked for a favor. The Pentagon has a full appreciation of where its institutional interests lie without anybody having to draw a map.

But in this case, as many as 7,000 people living near the Burlington airport stand to have their lives made miserable as a result of the decision. Maybe that’s a sacrifice that must be made in the best interests of the country and the state. But just to make sure that the integrity of the process was not compromised, we agree with Greco and others that the Air Force needs to release the scoring sheets and other documents for all the bases that were under consideration.