The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system the US military has ever pursued. With massive delays, cost blowouts and performance failings, the F-35 has become a symbol of the excess of the military industrial complex. It has also become a flashpoint of popular opposition to runaway military spending, and now the Burlington City Council may vote to take a stand, by prohibiting the basing of the aircraft at the city-owned airport in Northern Vermont.
The following article outlines the problems with the F-35 Project, the situation in Vermont and the opportunity arising for people power at a local level to challenge militarism across the United States.
The F-35 Project
The original idea behind the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter seemed like a good one. This would be an aircraft that could perform multiple missions (air-to-air combat, ground attack, reconnaissance and air defense missions with stealth capability) and variants of the aircraft could be used by three services, replacing several aging aircraft: the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B. The F-35A is the lightest of the three, has conventional takeoff and landing capability and is meant for use by the Air Force. The F-35B has short, and vertical takeoff capability and is designed for the Marines, and the F-35C is equipped for carrier landings necessary to the Navy. It was thought that by combining several aircraft into one, significant cost savings could be realized in development, testing, production, repairs and spares. The theory seemed like a good idea, but now, years into the process, the reality is that by attempting to be all things, it has not succeeded at any. The F-35 performs no better than any of the aircraft it is designed to replace. It is the most expensive military weapons system in history, has not met performance criteria, has been rife with cost overruns and technical problems, is years behind schedule, and has been the subject of countless scathing criticism.
The Pentagon was so anxious to manufacture the F-35, that it approved production before it was adequately tested. Redesigns and backfits have caused cost overruns and massive delays. As more and more problems became known, more orders were cancelled, thus raising the per aircraft cost. The project is now more than 70% over budget, and seven years behind schedule. In 2014 the unit production cost of F-35As will be $188.5 million each; F-35Bs and Cs will average $277.9 million each, and in all F-35s will cost, on average, $219.3 million. That is, well over $200 million to purchase one plane, to say nothing of the cost to operate, maintain, repair, and base it.
How is it possible that a program that is not performing well and is grossly over budget should continue being funded? I once worked as an Operational Test Director at the Navy’s operational test and evaluation command in Norfolk, VA. Our work followed the developmental test and evaluation of the defense contractors. Our job was to put proposed weapons and other systems into real operational situations, and to create tests and measures of effectiveness that would determine if a project was ready for the fleet, and approved for production and purchase. All of the military services do operational test and evaluation, and of course it is in their interest to make sure that the system works well and will be an asset to the operator when it is in their hands.
This system has checks and balances, but there is also a built-in conflict of interest. Services know that if a system is not testing well, its budget may be cut, fewer may be produced, or the program could be scrapped altogether. There is a tendency for the services to overlook, or downplay the severity of discrepancies, so that their program will continue to be funded.
There is also a potential conflict of interest between senior officers who serve as program or acquisition managers and then retire to enter the revolving door into lobbying, or to work directly for the defense contractor whose program they were testing.
The situation in Vermont
Burlington International Airport, located in a densely populated area in the outskirts of Vermont’s largest city, is currently home to the Vermont Air National Guard’s F-16 squadron. However, F-16s are slated to be phased out, and government officials are scrambling to find other uses for their air base.
Local citizen opposition to the F-35s is strong. Burlington residents cite the Air Force’s own Environmental Impact Statement which reports that noise caused by the F-35 will be more than four times that of the F-16, and that basing of the aircraft in Burlington will make 3400 nearby residences uninhabitable. There are also serious safety concerns about local residences being in a crash zone. Despite the report and the opposition, both Vermont Senators, Leahy and Sanders, are sticking by their support for basing the F-35 in Burlington.
It is disappointing that Senators Leahy and Sanders are supporting the F-35. This is a bad trade-off and a short-sighted way to create jobs. The F-35 is a money pit, with the lifetime costs for the F-35 are now estimated to be $1.5 trillion. The Vermont Senators both know this is a lousy program, but they say if it’s going to happen anyway, they want the planes in Vermont instead of Florida. A principled position would be to say what is bad policy for America, is bad policy for Vermont, and every state, and call for programs to create socially and environmentally productive green jobs instead.
The F-35 provides the perfect opportunity and rallying point for the those ready to step up and champion the conversion of military jobs to green jobs. As Mattea Kramer and Miriam Pemberton coin it: “Beating Swords into Solar Panels”
Burlington is only the beginning
The situation with the F-35 in Burlington is a symbol, or perhaps a symptom, of what can only be described as the U.S. obsession with militarism. Our government spends over 50% of every discretionary tax dollar on the military, and as a nation, we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Politicians appear afraid to speak against any program no matter how ineffective, lest they be accused of “not supporting the troops”. As a nation, we wear blinders when it comes to the military, but we need to ask ourselves who profits, and who suffers from our extraordinarily lopsided spending priorities?
The upcoming vote by the Burlington City Council represents an opportunity for the will of the people to prevail over the interests of the behemoth Military Industrial Complex. Robert Naiman points out that successful passage of this resolution will not kill the F-35 program in itself, but points out that:
“...it will set a crucial precedent. It will prove that the F-35 is politically vulnerable. It will mark a historic defeat of pork-barrel military Keynesianism by citizen engagement.”
It may do more than that. If Burlington can take a stand and demonstrate the strength of the people’s voice and the growing collective discontent; a realization that we can demand that our governments, local, state, and federal start choosing human needs over military might. Burlington today, your local council tomorrow?
~ Leah Bolger serves as Secretary of Defense in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet.