A showdown over the F-35

October 28, 2013

The Vermont political establishment has always supported basing the F-35 warplane in Burlington, but a grassroots opposition is making its stand, writes Paul Fleckenstein.

THREE YEARS ago, Vermont's political and economic elites launched a plan to base the new F-35A warplane at Burlington International Airport. As with nearly all other military basing decisions around the country, the state's F-35 boosters, wrapped in slogans of patriotism and purported jobs benefits, expected scant opposition.

The beginning of the grassroots movement to stop the F-35 basing was modest--but it included a retired Air Force colonel and local city councilor, a blogger from an airport neighborhood already damaged by the basing of F-16s, and a handful of labor, antiwar and community activists who came together to form the Stop the F-35 Coalition in 2010.

Since then, the F-35 basing plan has been exposed as an attempt to ram a boondoggle weapons program into the heart of Vermont's most densely populated city, at the expense of the health, economic security and dignity of thousands of working-class and modest-income residents. Thousands of people have participated in actions and meetings to oppose the basing.

Vermonters oppose the basing of the F-35A warplane
Vermonters oppose the basing of the F-35A warplane

The struggle will come to a head in late October when the Burlington City Council takes up a resolution to bar the basing at its airport.

Lockheed Martin's F-35 joint strike fighter program is the largest and most expensive weapons system in history. The program has run consistently over budget and behind schedule, and it has failed quality assurance reviews. Even pro-Pentagon critics have said that the plane is an obsolete and underperforming pork-barrel project that will bring no benefits for the military.

The current projected long-term cost is a staggering $1.5 trillion. There are F-35-related Pentagon contracts for the war industry in 48 of 50 states, and a planned international supply chain the runs through dozens of allied countries. The payoffs for supporting the agenda of U.S. imperialism run deep into ruling classes the planet over.

It is a textbook boondoggle project orchestrated by Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon and their congressional servants--otherwise known as the military-industrial complex. Internationally recognized warplane expert and critic of the F-35 Pierre Sprey describes its real mission as "to send money to Lockheed."

As a boondoggle program, the F-35 is riddled with problems--current test flights only take place under the most ideal conditions, 6 million lines of programming have to be debugged, the planes can't fly near thunderstorms or cold weather, and so on. But each problem means more contracts to correct them.

Unfortunately for Vermont, at the head of this monstrosity sits Vermont's senior senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy. Sen. Leahy personally intervened to secure the preliminary basing for Vermont when the Air Force had decided to base the plane elsewhere.

A LARGE source of the opposition to the basing plan is the extreme noise of the warplane. It clocks in at four times as loud as the current Vermont Air Guard F-16s that have already caused the buyouts and demolition of over 100 working-class homes.

The Air Force's environmental impact statement calculates that over 8,000 residents will be put in an "unsuitable for residential use" extreme noise zone with the F-35. Opponents have documented that 1,500 children around the airport face risks of cognitive and health impairment, and have pointed to the current scientific consensus that the elevated noise levels from the warplanes cause cardiovascular and other health harms.

Mixed with the projected negative impact on working-class home values and the disproportionate effect on recent immigrant communities, the opposition has been fierce. In Winooski, a town that sits at the end of the runway, community mobilization forced the City Council, comprised of a majority of basing supporters, to unanimously vote for a resolution urging the Air Force not to base the F-35 in Vermont. This was an important lesson in popular democracy.

But the opposition is also based on wider concerns about the militarization of Vermont and the growing power of the military-industrial complex to shape economic priorities in the state. Opponents also stress the obscene priorities of taking $1.5 trillion in tax dollars to transfer to military contractors, while at the same time increasing austerity for workers, students, and programs addressing climate change and other planetary assaults.

The response of the state's Democratic Party leadership to the popular outcry has been a betrayal of democracy. The governor, the entire congressional delegation (including Sen. Bernie Sanders), and Burlington's Democratic mayor have all unconditionally supported the basing. They have stonewalled opponents, completely refusing to meet with Affected residents or participate in any public forums or attend hearings. Leahy and Gov. Peter Shumlin have entirely dismissed residents' concern over a "little noise."

Every elected Democratic Party politician in a statewide office has refused to even meet with affected residents. The military contractors, already sitting atop a $1 billion-a-year Pentagon project with the help of Leahy's office, understand that scoring a basing win on the F-35 will be a boon to future investment and contracts for the Vermont military industry--a "mascot" in the words of one booster. The basing also fits well into the plans of regional commercial interests to greatly expand commercial and passenger traffic at Burlington International Airport and to rezone surrounding residential property to commercial uses for hotels and other commercial development.

Rhetoric on the national level aside, the Vermont Democratic establishment knows who it represents. On October 4, the Air Force issued its preliminary basing decision selecting Burlington. The outcome wasn't surprising given the disregard for democracy of Vermont's political establishment.

THE CURRENT focus of struggle is on the Burlington City Council, which, as owner and landlord of the airport, has the power to bar the basing. The Burlington City Council will vote the issue on in late October.

Four Progressive Party councilors on the 14-member council have bucked the pressure from the political establishment and worked with the Stop the F-35 Coalition to draft and sponsor a resolution that would bar the basing. More than a dozen environmental, community, women's rights, veterans and religious groups have gone on record opposing the basing.

Of course, F-35 boosters are contesting the resolution. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger jumped at a preliminary legal opinion by the City Attorney to accuse the opposition movement of spreading "inaccuracies," and embraced the conclusion that the military has complete discretion to do whatever it wants at Burlington's airport. This was convenient cover for his unconditional promotion of the basing, but activists pointed out that this would be a shocking blow to democracy and a regression to the antidemocratic equivalent of military rule.

The Astroturf group "Green Ribbons for the F-35," headed up by a local realtor, is running an intense media campaign to discredit the resolution as well. As of this writing, an amended resolution embraced by the City Attorney is heading to a Council vote, with a good chance of winning a majority. Both sides are mobilizing for the meeting.

The struggle against the basing is one of the people versus the military-industrial complex. The only force that has moved the campaign forward has been grassroots organizing and protest.

In one of the most liberal states in the country, the state's Democratic Party has been on the wrong side and has fronted for the military and contractors. This is a lesson of why we need a political alternative to the two parties--and how a grassroots campaign can overcome enormous obstacles to thoroughly discredit a boondoggle military project.

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