On Tuesday, two Vermont National Guard pilots left for Texas to pick up the first F-35A fighter jets that will be permanently assigned to the Air National Guard facility in South Burlington. The basing of the planes has been controversial since the Air Force announced the decision six years ago.
After review and analysis in December 2013, then-VT Adjutant General Stephen Cray announced that the Vermont Guard had been chosen as the host base for a squadron of F-35 fighter jets. “Today is an historic day for the United States Air Force, for the Air National Guard and certainly for the Vermont Air National Guard. This morning I’m pleased to announce that the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force have selected Burlington as the first Air National Guard base for the F-35. Congratulations!”
Opponents had promised to sue if the Vermont Guard base was chosen. The Stop the F-35 Coalition and six Chittenden County residents filed suit against the Secretary of the Air Force alleging that the strict review required under the National Environmental Policy Act when preparing the Environmental Impact Statement for basing the fighter jets was inadequately conducted.
In 2016 a federal judge rejected the lawsuit.
The F-35’s have a greater noise profile than the previous F16’s used by the Guard. The Stop the F-35 Coalition argued that the jets’ noise would adversely affect the health of residents and nearby schools. In April 2015, the city of Winooski joined another lawsuit filed in 2014 by the coalition and Chittenden County residents claiming noise levels, as well as health and property value concerns, were not properly analyzed.
A year later, the Air Force announced an accelerated schedule, saying the jets would arrive in 2019 rather than 2020. At the time Stop the F-35 Coalition member Roseanne Greco, a former South Burlington City Councilor and a retired Air Force Colonel, summarized some of the key concerns of opponents. “When we have had new generation aircraft the Air Force has never based them first in a populated area. But they’re breaking precedent now because of political pressure. We are the wrong location for the first basing of the F-35’s.”
On Town Meeting Day in 2018, Burlington voters passed a nonbinding question asking city officials to request the cancelation of the basing of fighter jets at the Burlington International Airport. Later that month the council approved forwarding the resolution although some felt the citizen-initiated ballot item was deceptively worded. Then-North District Independent David Hartnett excoriated the group that had offered the ballot question. “Throughout this process this group has been turned away at every stop. So they had one last resort: put a deceptive question in front of the Burlington voters on one last hail Mary.”
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger refused to sign the resolution but did forward it to the Secretary of the Air Force. Both the Winooski and South Burlington city councils considered and passed similar resolutions soon after.
In 2019 a new group formed with another argument against the F-35. Citizens Against Nuclear Bombers in Vermont said the public release of the Department of Defense 2018 Nuclear Posture Review indicated the planes could carry nuclear weapons. Campaign Director James Ehlers, a 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, acknowledged it might be viewed as a last-ditch effort. “For me a nuclear weapons platform does not belong at a commercial civilian airport in a residential neighborhood.”
Nicole Citro, who founded Green Ribbons for the F-35s in 2012 to support the F-35 basing in Vermont, said the group lacks credibility. “Every plane that the Air Force has ever had is nuclear capable. They use whatever wording they’re finding in documents and they’re manipulating it to make it seem like there’s an issue here when there isn’t.”
Over the years many of the issues have remained constant. In December 2013, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy seemed prescient as he commented on some of the concerns over the jets. "I’ve had several people tell me they were opposed to it because they were opposed to the idea of nuclear weapons being stored here in Burlington. I said well of course there aren’t any. Others were very concerned at the cost, noise. I thought those were legitimate concerns. I was though upset with a number of people who told me we should get the military out of here. And frankly there is no area of common ground between me and those who want to get rid of the Vermont National Guard.”
The Vermont Guard has invested $100 million in facility upgrades in advance of the F-35 arrival including an operations building, a maintenance hangar and mission simulators.
The first two Vermont Air Guard F-35’s are expected to arrive Thursday.