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As F-35 Decision Looms, A Battle For Public Perception

Taylor Dobbs

  For the second time in two weeks, the Vermont Air National Guard summoned the press Thursday to set the record straight in response to claims made by opponents of the F-35.

U.S. Air Force officials are working to choose among basing options for the high-tech fighter jet. Burlington International Airport is high on the list despite opposition much more intense than at the other bases in consideration.

As the Secretary of the Air Force’s basing decision looms, a battle of public perception is underway on both sides of the issue. But there isn’t likely to be a clear winner; the Air Force’s public comment periods have closed for this round of F-35 basing, and local and state governments are now all but powerless to influence the Air Force’s decision.

That didn’t stop opponents, who this morning held a press conference raising their concerns that the relatively new F-35 is more likely to crash than the F-16. There’s also recently been some confusion over the exact year the F-35s may arrive in Vermont. Opponents say they may be here as soon as 2015 while Brigadier General Richard Harris said the jets would arrive in 2020 at the soonest.

“I will be clear again: The Air Force has said it’s not projected before 2020.  In my opinion, it can only slip later,” Harris said, referring to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the jet released earlier this month.

He said the active duty basing of the jet – that is, basing at a non-Guard location – will take place in 2015 and the Guard basing will happen later.

“It’s clearly stated the active duty basing is projected to be in 2015, and the Air Guard basing, if it’s us, is projected to be 2020,” Harris said.

But the Final EIS says otherwise.

“Under the proposed action either 18 … or 24 … F-35A aircraft would be beddown [based] at Burlington AGS no sooner than 2015,” it reads. “Under either scenario, the F-35A beddown would be completed in 2020, when the full complement of 18 or 24 F-35As would be at the installation.”

In other words, the jets could begin to arrive sometime after the beginning of 2015 and would be present in full at the airport before the end of 2020.

While the Air Guard and F-35 opponents battle over facts and figures, the 30-day “waiting period” after the Final EIS publication, during which no formal basing decision is allowed, is at its halfway point.

The Secretary of the Air Force may make a decision any time after Nov. 3, though there’s no deadline for the decision. That office may also choose not to base the F-35s anywhere at this time.

The local opposition movement saw hope of blocking the jet diminish this afternoon when Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood issued an opinion stating that “the City cannot simply waive federal preemption and the limits in the U.S. Constitution” that establish that cities may not interfere with or restrict federal military activities.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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