“I can attest to the integrity of the process,” said acting assistant secretary of the Air Force Kathy Ferguson, who oversaw the service’s so-called Executive Steering Group for Basing.
But she acknowledged the Air Force has revised estimates of the environmental impact of the F-35s, and said the final review will reassess some of its earlier conclusions, including proximity to a weapons depot.
“We are well aware of that,” she said.
The Air Force’s chief of staff, General Mark A. Welsh III, also recently assured local officials who are raising questions about the basing decision that he believes the service’s selection process “is working as designed.”
But he also acknowledged in a letter to members of the South Burlington City Council that some of the environmental data that was initially fed into the process was not up to date.
Leahy, elected in 1974, is a powerful figure in the Senate. He is the longest-serving member and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense, which exerts great control over how the Pentagon spends its budget. As cochairman of the National Guard Caucus in the Senate, Leahy also is a prominent booster of the Guard and looks out for the Guard’s interests in Washington.
While the Air Force was conducting its F-35 National Guard base evaluations, Leahy was simultaneously sponsoring successful legislation that significantly elevated the National Guard’s status within the military by making its top official a four-star general and giving it a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Leahy also has other political connections to the Air Force and the National Guard. One of his former top Senate staffers, Daniel Ginsberg, is an assistant secretary of the Air Force. The former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard is a general in the Air Force and second in command for North American homeland defense.
Leahy was a strong advocate of basing F-35s in Vermont, issuing laudatory press releases with each positive step toward the award. Asked specifically about allegations of political influence, Leahy did not respond directly. In an e-mailed statement, the senator said the benefits of the F-35s appear to outweigh the disadvantages.
“Fighter jets have been flying out of the airport since the mid-1950s,’’ Leahy said. “Guard leaders have pointed out that jets based at the airport years ago were often louder than the F-35.’’
He added, “The F-35 is the Air Force’s future, and the Vermont Air Guard should be a vital part of the Air Force’s future.’’
Leahy has been among the most prominent cheerleaders for basing F-35s at the Vermont Air National Guard, but he had plenty of company. Strong support came from the governor, the state Legislature, a slew of local business leaders and groups, as well as his fellow senator, independent Bernie Sanders.
As controversy has bubbled about the Air Force base decision, F-35 boosters have mounted public relations campaigns to defend the choice. Nicole Citro, a local insurance agent, has circulated thousands of green ribbons and bumper stickers expressing support.
“Put up your green ribbons and as a community show we are all proud of our Green Mountain Boys and the outstanding job they do defending this great country,” her website urges.
Jobs may be at stake, say supporters. The 1,100-member Vermont Air National Guard could be without a mission if it does not receive the new planes and the current squadron of F-16s is phased out as expected over the next 15 years.
“Every single political leader in this state is pro-F-35,” said Ernie Pomerleau, a local real estate developer who sits on the board of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. and believes the move will boost the local economy.
Local supporters and military officials insist that Vermont offers military benefits that other potential F-35 locations do not, including relatively unfettered airspace to train and proximity to populated areas across the Northeast of the United States. They point out that it was Vermont Air National Guard that patrolled the airspace over New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
But local officials and residents upset about noise have sent an avalanche of letters to the Air Force in recent months, asking that it reconsider its decision.
The potential for thousands of homes to be negatively affected by excessive noise — deemed to be above 65 decibels — would add to the 200 homes that have already been so designated due to commercial growth of the airport. Already, some 50 homes have been purchased by the airport with federal grants and are in the process of being demolished.Continued...