For Vt. Delegation, Little Political Risk In Defending F-35 Program

07/03/12 7:50AM By Kirk Carapezza
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AP/Toby Talbot
Vermont Air National Guard F-16 fighter jets are seen in the hanger in South Burlington. Vermont's congressional delegation wants the Vermont Air National Guard to receive the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Vermont's Congressional delegation has long called for the Pentagon to cut its budget. But Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch all support basing F-35s in Burlington because, they say, it might sustain hundreds of jobs. And despite growing local opposition, the delegation says it's committed to the program.

Senator Bernie Sanders says the program that critics have labeled a boondoggle serves as a reminder that it's time to take a closer look at military spending - from monitoring contract fraud to tracking excessive manufacturing.

"At any given moment, the military is sitting on all kinds of spare parts that have been ordered to the tunes of billions of dollars which are never going to be needed," Sanders says.

The F-35 program is different from the spare parts issue, he says, because the fighter jets have already been built. "It's fair enough to have an argument about the F-35 in general, but I think by and large that decision has already been reached."

The F-16s that the Vermont National Guard currently flies are due to be retired. The Air Force has proposed replacing them with 18 to 24 F-35s, a new generation fighter jet.

The congressional delegation and other supporters say the F-35 supports the economy. They say hundreds of jobs depend on the jets. But the F-35 has been expensive and controversial. The Government Accountability Office now pegs the price tag at $400 billion. That's $119 billion over budget.

But the jets are being built, and Congressman Welch says since they have to go somewhere it might as well be Vermont.

At the same time, he points out that during the ongoing debt reduction debate he has repeatedly voted against military spending.

"The Pentagon can't be given a blank check while domestic discretionary spending is squeezed," Welch says. In this tough economy, he admits it's been difficult to justify the economic benefits of the F-35 program as residents in Winooski, South Burlington and Burlington - the communities most affected by airport noise - have mounted opposition. Welch hopes the Air Force will take public comments seriously and do something to control the noise.

"I take very seriously the comments that the folks in the neighborhood are making," Welch says. "They have put together their concerns in a very forthright and direct way, so there is a tradeoff here."

It's a tradeoff that Senator Patrick Leahy is ready to accept.

"If the U.S. Air Force is gong to have fighter jets, I want them deployed in the most cost effective fashion," Leahy says. "Doing it with the Vermont Air Guard is far more cost effective than the regular Air Force."

Leahy says he's long been tough on the Pentagon. He voted against the war in Vietnam when Congress cut off the authorization for that war by a one-vote margin. He also voted against the B1 bomber, saying it was a great waste of money.

Leahy says he supports the program coming to Burlington because he's worried the Air Guard will have to cut back if it doesn't replace its current fleet of F-16s. "We have an extremely well trained Air Guard, and yet they're flying the oldest airplanes there are. If we're going to maintain the ability to have that kind of a response in the Vermont Guard then they're going to need new airplanes."

A study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts shows such new weapons along with defense and homeland security contracts infused some $34 billion into New England's economy last year. But many are still critical.

"Pork is pork," says Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont.

It's hypocritical of the delegation, Nelson says, to demand Pentagon spending cuts while supporting the F-35 program. "The only way they can spin it is by talking about jobs - high-paying government jobs. Otherwise it's just pork."

And Nelson predicts all three members of the delegation won't face much political risk if that's how they continue to characterize the debate.

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winooski burlington south_burlington f-35 vermont_national_guard air_guard vermont_air_guard business politics
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