Leas: Leahy just doesn’t want to know about the F-35

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer in South Burlington

As commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the war, and as president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower likely learned something about corrupting corporate and military influence over politicians.

In his farewell speech to the nation from the Oval Office on Jan. 17, 1961, President Eisenhower said:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

President Eisenhower offered only one solution – he called for “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to guard against this disaster.

Here in Vermont the “unwarranted influence” problem President Eisenhower warned against appears to have become deeply entrenched: the entire statewide political leadership, including Gov. Shumlin, Sens. Leahy and Sanders, Congressman Welch and several other Democratic and Republican Party leaders are all in lock-step with Lockheed-Martin and its $1.5 trillion F-35.

Fortunately, the solution President Eisenhower suggested is also largely in place in Vermont. Elected South Burlington City Council chair, retired Col. Rosanne Greco, and grassroots activists from neighborhoods around the airport have conducted a detailed study of the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement, FAA documents, and other official documents. The activists hired Vermont attorney, James Dumont, to plan and implement a wide-ranging legal strategy to complement their broad-based public action strategy. They strenuously sought to bring what they learned to the attention of Sen. Leahy. When requests for meetings were refused they even invoked their right under the U.S. Constitution to petition Sen. Leahy for redress of grievances. They argued that the constitutional right to petition is rendered meaningless if elected officials refuse to meet, hear the petition, and respond.

But Peter Shumlin, Pat Leahy, Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch appear to have figured out how to overcome President Eisenhower’s solution to unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex: refuse to meet with the alert and knowledgeable citizenry while openly meeting with corporate promoters of the F-35. And pull media stunts, such as the Dec. 12 trip to Florida undertaken by Gov. Shumlin in a private jet to hear the F-35 to which no opponents of the F-35 were invited. The $23,000 cost of the trip was paid by a chief local booster of the military-industrial complex, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. (GBIC).

Gov. Shumlin certainly won the prize for making the silliest comment after hearing the F-35 on Dec. 12 in Florida: “I’m shocked how quiet the F-35 is” — even though the sound meter held by Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien recorded the F-35 sound level at 114 dB! The Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement says that 114 dB has a loudness between the sound of a nightclub and an oxygen torch (page C-9).

But the public relations purpose of the trip to Florida collapsed when the Burlington Free Press reported the sound level measurements taken by Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien: The F-35 sound level was 114 dB while the F-16 sound level was 101 dB, 13 points lower. As the Air Force says that each 10 dB is heard as a doubling of the loudness, Mayor O’Brien’s meter found that the F-35 would be heard as substantially more than twice as loud as the F-16. Gov. Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger did not announce the results they measured on their iPad meters.

Gov. Shumlin certainly won the prize for making the silliest comment after hearing the F-35 on Dec. 12 in Florida: “I’m shocked how quiet the F-35 is” — even though the sound meter held by Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien recorded the F-35 sound level at 114 dB! The Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement says that 114 dB has a loudness between the sound of a nightclub and an oxygen torch (page C-9).

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, who remained in Washington, tops the list for issuing a letter to a constituent that is chock full of misleading statements. Statements from the Dec. 12, 2012, letter Senator Leahy wrote to Stefania Usova are below with corrections and further information in italics:

• “Vermont’s former Adjutant General Michael Dubie has stated that the F-35 will not be as loud as the F-4s”

Even if true, F-4 noise would not be acceptable under today’s FAA and Air Force standards. The same fallacious argument could be made to turn back the clock on lead paint, asbestos, and cars without seat belts.

• “The EIS’s projected noise impact does not account for any efforts by the Guard to reduce noise from the new jet, and the impacts of noise mitigation procedures implemented by the Vermont Air Guard have significantly limited the noise footprint of the F-16. Both the Air Force and the Vermont Air National Guard have committed to implement aggressive noise abatement policies for the F-35, and based on the record of noise abatement with the F-16, I believe those procedures will similarly limit the F-35 noise impacts.”

Future efforts by the Guard to reduce F-35 noise are speculative. What is a fact is that the Guard has a record of vastly increasing the F-16 noise footprint. First, it changed engines on the F-16, increasing noise. Then it moved the external fuel tank from under the fuselage to the two wings to reduce metal fatigue and save on maintenance. External fuel tanks on wings forced the use of the afterburner for takeoff, vastly increasing noise in South Burlington. The FAA mitigation strategy in South Burlington for the increased noise for areas above 65 dB DNL — the noise zone that the Air Force says is “not considered suitable for residential use,” — is to spend $40 million to buy 200 homes, remove the people and tear down those houses. Fifty-five homes have already been demolished and 60 others are now vacant, awaiting demolition. The change in engine and move to afterburner use with the F-16 was without any hearing or chance for input from residents. The Air Force says that the F-35 is more than four times louder than the F-16 (page BR4-18 and C-6, C-9). But if the Guard uses the “noise abatement” strategy it followed with the F-16 we may find the F-35 undergoing changes that make it even louder. Sound insulation on houses, if implemented, is costly, requires windows to be closed, and does nothing for outdoor activities. The FAA says “land acquisition and relocation is the only alternative that would eliminate the residential incompatibility” and that “…noise barriers provide little, if any, reductions of noise from aircraft that are airborne and can be seen over the barrier.” (2008 FAA Report, pages 29 and 35)

• “I take very seriously Vermonters’ concerns that aircraft noise could hurt property values or make a home ‘unmortgage able.’”

Not just Vermonter’s concerns. The Air Force EIS warns that the F-35 will put more than half of Winooski in an area that the Air Force and the FAA say is “generally not considered suitable for residential use” (page C-14). Senator Leahy’s letter entirely omits mention of areas“not considered suitable for residential use.” If Sen. Leahy actually takes Vermonters’ concerns about F-35 impacts on property values and mortgages seriously – as well as our concerns about health and education impacts of the F-35 — wouldn’t he agree to meet with these Vermonters?

• “However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has confirmed that F-35 projected noise levels will not result in any homes being denied a mortgage. In fact, HUD’s property appraisal rules specifically state that a mortgage cannot be denied because of airport noise.”

This unconditional statement in Sen. Leahy’s letter contradicts the Air Force draft EIS: The actual wording in the Air Force Draft EIS on pages C-46 to C-47 is: “According to HUD, FHA, and VA guidance, sites are conditionally acceptable with special approvals and noise attenuation in noise zones greater than 65 dB DNL … properties should not be rejected only because of airport influences if there is evidence of acceptability within the market …” Special approvals, noise attenuation, and acceptability within the market for houses in such a noise zone are all speculative. Thus, HUD, FHA, and VA loans are not assured.

• “A summary of studies included in the EIS, as well as another study conducted by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC) suggest that noise may be a contributing, but is not a primary or predominant, factor in property valuation.”

The conclusion of the GBIC study is bogus – almost all the houses near the airport in the “study” were purchased by the airport in the $40 million buyout program at full price, not reduced for F-16 noise. The full-price buyout of homes is why the “study” got the result it got. Without that government buyout homeowners in Winooski, Burlington and Williston could see the major losses in property valuation described in the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement.

• “Regardless of the Air Force’s basing decisions, I will continue to look for ways to diversify our fighter fleet and rein in defense spending.”

If Sen. Leahy was serious about reining in defense spending he would call for canceling the F-35–just as the Canadian government canceled its order for 65 of the planes because of the “full lifetime cost estimate for the Lockheed Martin plane that is five times greater than what the Tories originally advertised it would cost.” A Globe and Mail article on Nov.12 reported that “the “cradle-to-grave” bill to taxpayers for buying and operating the controversial F-35 warplane will exceed $600-million per jet.”

• “I am not willing to sacrifice any Vermont community for a new fighter jet. I have worked to obtain federal funds for community investments in both South Burlington and Winooski, and I would never support a new program that would harm those communities.”

 Sen. Leahy is vigorously supporting basing the F-35 in South Burlington despite the Air Force warning that the basing would put more than half the housing in Winooski in an area “generally not considered suitable for residential use.” Thus, Sen. Leahy actually appears more willing than the Air Force to sacrifice more than half of Winooski, as well as portions of Burlington and Williston — just as a portion of South Burlington was already sacrificed for the external fuel tanks on the F-16. Sen. Leahy has not bothered to demonstrate even an appearance of commitment to protecting Vermont communities by meeting with members of those communities and holding a hearing so all sides could give him information.

• “I would strongly oppose basing the F-35 in Vermont if I believed its noise would make Winooski or South Burlington unlivable.”

In this statement may be the reason Sen. Leahy is refusing to meet retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Greco, now chair of the South Burlington City Council, or other opponents of the F-35. Sen. Leahy needs to sustain his belief that all will be OK with F-35 basing. So he needs to avoid learning the facts about the destruction of housing in Winooski. He just does not want to know the facts about noise provided by the Air Force in its draft Environmental Impact Statement and by the FAA in its study of aircraft noise mitigation. Col. Greco is a highly skilled military analyst, illustrated by the fact that she was selected to work directly for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and for its chairman. The senator may be correct that opening his mind to information from Col. Greco might put his current belief at risk that all is well with basing the F-35 in South Burlington.

• “While I do not consider the F-35 a jobs program, I cannot ignore what possible impacts a base closure might have on South Burlington and Winooski.”

No Air Force official has ever said that the Vermont Air National Guard base would close if the F-35 did not come to South Burlington. This because other missions are available for the Vermont Air National Guard and because the Air Force announced in September that it is extending the life of the F-16 with upgrades so it can remain in service at least until 2032. As to jobs, the opposite is the case: Adjutant Gen. Dubie said on April 19, 2010, that the Guard would lose jobs if the F-35 comes because maintenance for that plane will be done elsewhere. Hundreds of maintenance jobs are at risk if the F-35 comes to Burlington.

• “I appreciate that you have contacted me with your concerns so that I can work with the Air Force to see that they are addressed.”

If Sen. Leahy actually appreciated the contact with constituents who have concerns he would agree to meet with constituents who have concerns.

The concern raised by President Eisenhower – an out of control military-industrial complex using its “unwarranted influence” on political leaders is clearly illustrated by the situation facing Vermonters. Unwarranted influence that is causing our Vermont political leaders to act in lock-step denial of the intense damage the Air Force says basing the F-35 here will cause towns neighboring the airport.

But the solution President Eisenhower suggested, “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” is engaged. Even if our political leaders continue to fail us, citizens are determined to build an unstoppable citizen campaign, combined with effective legal action, to protect our Vermont towns.

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  • It’s one measure of the shallowness of the discussion of the F-35, that this cogent and careful article gets no comments till today, Jan 5.

    Our elected officials should be ashamed of their approach to this question, but do they even have the capacity for shame?

    On the evidence so far, they (Leahy, Sanders, Welch, Shumlin. Weinberger, O’Brien, and others) have shown no capacity for intellectual curiosity or integrity when it comes to civilian control of the military.

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