Fleckenstein & Leas: Leahy drops bombshell in response to snowballing criticism of F-35 program

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

Faced with snowballing criticism of the F-35 program as the most expensive, wasteful, and ineffective weapons system in history, “The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built,” Time magazine, Feb. 25, 2013, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, dropped three bombshells in a widely circulated letter to constituent Christopher Hurd on the morning of Tuesday, March 12:

The F-35 program has been poorly managed and is a textbook example of how not to buy military equipment. The causes of the F-35 program’s present difficulties are too numerous to detail in my response to your letter; however, I believe the F-35 program is approaching a point where the military services and a majority of Congress will recognize that the jet is just too costly to proceed with purchases at today’s planned levels. That recognition may lead to a decision to diversify of our future fighter jet fleet, with the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps opting to modernize their current fleet of fighter jets and substantially reduce the total number of F-35s that they plan to buy …

I have pushed and continue to push for a better approach to buying military equipment.  I don’t think “one size fits all,” monolithic, ultra-expensive equipment is what our troops need …

Sen. Leahy’s letter comes in the context of a slew of articles sharply criticizing the F-35 program. For example, two weeks earlier, Business Week on Feb. 25, 2013 called for “killing” the F-35 program, “the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history and one that offers only marginal improvements over existing aircraft” to save hundreds of billions of dollars. Even the chief of the Pentagon program “slammed its commercial partners Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney,” as reported in Business Insider, “Chief Of Dysfunctional F-35 Program Calls Out The Pentagon’s Defense Contractors.

Sen. Leahy’s letter legitimizes reports that F-35 procurement is poorly managed, an example of how not to buy, and is too costly. In addition, the Time magazine article and other authoritative reports detail how the F-35 fails to meet performance requirements of any of the service branches, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Sen. Leahy’s letter would be extremely noteworthy if it stopped at such criticism of the F-35. But his letter goes much further, stating that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all have an alternative: they can modernize their current fleet of fighter jets — including the F-16C currently flown by the Vermont Air National Guard. Sen. Leahy’s letter then goes even further, concluding that the F-35 is not what our troops need.

Within 12 hours of Sen. Leahy’s bombshells, an article appeared on the Reuters website, “Pentagon aims to restructure F-35 office,” stating that Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who heads the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, is “reorganizing and I am making personnel changes” in the F-35 acquisition program … Bogdan said he hoped to avoid the kind of ‘death spiral’ that resulted in much smaller orders for the F-22 fighter, also built by Lockheed, as well as other aircraft.”

The Reuters article notes that “the F-35 program is about seven years behind schedule and has seen costs rise about 70 percent above initial estimates.” The Time magazine article quotes the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, saying: “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done.”

While Sen. Leahy’s letter to Chris Hurd did not mention the proposed basing of the F-35 in South Burlington, an article about his letter in the Burlington Free Press the next day said:

Leahy has joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in supporting the basing of the F-35A at the Burlington Air Guard station, despite local concerns that it will be up to four times louder than the F-16s. Airport noise has led to the need under FAA guidelines to purchase and raze homes near the airport.

The Free Press article quoted Leahy spokesman David Carle saying, “Senator Leahy’s preference is for Vermont’s Air Guard to be a part of the Air Force’s future, with basing in Vermont, for the many strategic reasons that led the Air Force to consider Vermont basing in the first place.”

Sen. Leahy’s letter can certainly be understood as threatening a substantial part of the F-35 program if the Air Force fails to quickly correct problems with F-35 procurement. And the quick response from Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan shows the Air Force is listening to him.

The Air Force might desperately want to decide against basing the F-35 at Burlington International Airport because of the devastating effect the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement reports on thousands of families who live in noise and crash zones:

• The runway at Burlington airport aims at Williston, Winooski and part of Burlington, all about one mile away. Thousands of homes are in the noise zone the Air Force says is “unsuitable for residential use.” The Air Force already agreed not to use the runway at Eglin Air Force base that aims at Valparaiso, one mile away, for F-35 flights.

• The FAA gave Burlington nearly $40 million to purchase and raze up to 200 homes in South Burlington. Fifty-five have already been demolished. The Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) reports that the F-16 dominates airport noise and that commercial jet noise is negligible compared the F-16. The F-35 will put 3,000 homes in the same noise zone that required the purchase and razing of those 200 homes in South Burlington.

• The Air Force EIS designates “Accident Potential Zones” (APZ) and “Runway Protection Zones (RPZ), “areas recognized as having the greatest risk of aircraft mishaps (crashes).” These zones extend from both ends of runways used by military jets. For safety reasons, the Air Force wisely restricts housing and other development in these areas in case a military jet loaded with 18,000 pounds of fuel crashes shortly after takeoff. Hundreds of homes in Winooski, Colchester, Burlington and Williston are in these crash zones.

In addition, a scientific consensus has emerged within the past 10 years confirming far more severe health effects from the noise level imposed by the F-35 than was described in the Air Force draft EIS, which relied on earlier studies. The effects are particularly severe for children. The results of the more recent studies were presented by Winooski resident Richard Joseph in a 29-page report, “Endangered Health.”

Thus, the Air Force secretary has more than adequate grounds to say no to basing the F-35 in Burlington.

Except for the intense pressure Senior Sen. Patrick Leahy is applying.

Sen. Leahy’s letter can certainly be understood as threatening a substantial part of the F-35 program if the Air Force fails to quickly correct problems with F-35 procurement. And the quick response from Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan shows the Air Force is listening to him.

However, Sen. Leahy’s letter can also be understood as threatening a substantial part of the F-35 program if the Air Force makes the rational decision not to base the F-35 in South Burlington.

Notwithstanding the pork aspect, Sen. Leahy’s letter necessarily undercuts two central arguments advanced by supporters of F-35 basing in Vermont, that the Air Force has no alternative to the F-35 and that our troops depend on the F-35.

Upgrades to extend the life of the F-16C and D past 2030 were announced by the Air Force and reported in the Air Force Times on Sept. 19, 2012. The Air Force Times report, now given impetus by Sen. Leahy’s letter, means that the Air Guard has the ability to upgrade many of its F-16C planes, acquire new ones, and keep them flying for at least 17 more years. Long enough to find another mission that is compatible with the residential character of the Burlington airport. And long enough to find another mission consistent with the desire of Vermonters to keep our soldiers and airmen safe from the illegal, immoral, and unjust wars for oil cooked up by politicians in Washington.

Ideally, the Air Guard will find a mission vastly different from collaborating with stealth attack on foreign countries. In view of hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Vermonters need our state militia to have a focused state mission giving them the tools to protect Vermonters from the continuing and sharply increasing threat from global warming. Certainly not an F-35: useless in a state emergency. Burning 2,000 gallons of fuel each time it flies. Its noise and crash zones putting thousands of Vermonters at severe risk.

Sen. Leahy’s letter leaves many questions unanswered, and constituents have a right to meet with him to get answers. So far, Sen. Leahy has refused to meet with any of the thousands of Vermonters who will be affected. As reported in the Free Press, Christopher Hurd, the constituent to whom Sen. Leahy sent his letter, said, “he is gratified that Leahy ‘has acknowledged the massive problems’ of the plane’s cost and development. ‘Finally!’ he said. ‘However, this does not exonerate Sen. Leahy from his responsibility to hold public hearings’ to discuss the basing of the plane at the Burlington airport … ‘He needs to be accountable.’”

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  • Paul Fleckenstein and James Marc Leas,

    Thank you for a well-researched, excellent overview of the F-35 program and its unsuitability in Burlington, VT.

    What were these politicians Sanders, Shumlin (flying down to Florida with some buddies on a private plane to hear the noise!), et al, thinking?

    Is this all about getting as much federal pork to Vermont to prop up an economy that would teeter without it?

    This grab-as-you-can mentality is also applicable to expensively-subsidized renewable energy projects that produce variable, intermittent, i.e., junk energy, at 3 to 5 times New England grid prices.

    The F-35 noise would be greater than 4 times the F-16 noise, and would impact an even a larger area than mentioned, AND such noises would often occur at night, when children and adults are trying to get a restful sleep to recover from their hectic lives. Razing hundreds of houses, displacing more than 1,000 people to make way for the F-35? This basing folly beyond rational and beyond human.

    Below are some noise data that may be of interest.

    Typical rural nighttime ambient noise is 20-40 dBA and urban residential nighttime noise is 58-62 dBA. Higher noise levels adversely impact restful sleep of people; restful sleep is a basic requirement for good mental and physical health.

    Doubling the sound pressure level, SPL, increases the dB instrument reading by 6 dB.
    For example: If at 800 uPa (micropascal) the SPL = 20 log (800/20) = 32 dB, at 1600 uPa it is 38 dB, and at 3200 uPa it is 44 dB, where 20 micropascal is the lowest SPL the human ear can sense, it is used as the reference pressure.

    The increase in SPL = 115 dBA (F-35) – 94 dBA (F-16) = 21 dBA. This appears to be an innocent number, but it is anything but.

    A 6 dBA increase means a doubling of SPL
    A 12 dBA increase means a quadrupling of SPL
    An 18 dBA increase means 8 times SPL
    24 dBA is 16 times; 30 dBA is 32 times; 36 dBA is 64 times; 42 dBA is 128 times, 48 dBA is 256 times, 54 dBA is 512 times.

    A nighttime take-off/fly-over of an F-35 would have a 115 dBA – 60 dBA (recommended nighttime residential) = 55 dBA greater sound; such a sound increase is sure to wake up everyone, except the dead.

    A nighttime take-off/fly-over of an F-16 would have a 94 dBA – 60 dBA (recommended nighttime residential) = 34 dBA greater sound.
    – many residents near the end of the runway are barely tolerating such a sound increase,
    – many residents already had their houses bought by the City.

    The noise of the F-35 will be 21 dBA greater than of the F-16, which will be perceived by residents as being about 7-10 times LOUDER.

    • Jon Lavallee

      SPLs are not analogous to perceived loudness. the human ear operates in a logarithmic fashion. therefore, 10bB is twice as loud to the human ear, not 6dB as you say. playing the numbers? additionally, what does the government ever do that is efficient and in budget? look no further than the current move of ANR into the national life building? the only difference is the scale. these over budgets should be expected this day and age.

      • Jon,
        You are right about SPL and perceived. 21 dBA would be at least 4 times louder, and this at NIGHT when people are trying to sleep.

  • MJ Farmer

    I spoke with a pilot who favored the F22S over the F35s – but because they were maunufactured overseas, the gov. did not prefer them. I guess the F35s are manufactured here. Also, he said the F35s get worst gas mileage than the F16s and F22s. Overall, he said the F22s handled better and got faster “lift”.

    • Indeed: Lockheed Martin has done more strategic damage to our nation’s military than any of our enemies could ever hope to.

  • sandra bettis

    all i can think of is that town that was so desperate for jobs that they wanted a nuclear waste dump to come to their town! are we that desperate?? are these the kind of jobs that we want in vt??

  • Ray Gonda

    The F-22 is one of the best dog-fight jets whereas the F-35 is an offensisve plane built to be an attack bomber supposedly able to penetrate enemy air defenses. The only fighter capability the F-35s have is it air-to-air rockets. It would be knocked out of the skies in droves in pure dog fights with other nations advance fighters.

    See among many other videos:

    Military expert Pierre Sprey, the founder and designer of the F-16 & A-10 Warthog airplanes, Explains why the f-35 will not cut it on the modern battlefield.

  • Ray Gonda

    F-35 as dog fighter:

    A sensitive report prepared in the US by Rand Corporation says Australia’s biggest defense purchase, the joint strike fighter will be inferior to Russian and Chinese rivals

  • Ray Gonda

    The F-35′s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy Feb 10, 2013

    Here’s more information on why of so many F-35s are planned to be purchased by our armed forces (about 2400 of them). It is basically due to the F-35s expected (in)effectiveness as an air-to-air combat jet. So air defense within our shores could suffer.

    From the website:

    That’s the theory under which the combat performance of an outnumbered combatant must be the square of the outnumbering ratio (outnumbered 3:1 must be 9x better, etc.) just to stay even.

    Or, as the oft-repeated Cold War era saying goes, “quantity has a quality all its own.”

    The belief in quantity could be seen as a point in the F-35′s favor, when comparing it to its implicit F-22 as a rival for USAF dollars. Even so, it’s prudent to note that the RAND study revolved around total missiles carried, and the F-35′s internal capacity will be no larger than half of the F-22′s (no more than 4 missiles, vs. 8 in the F-22A). Equivalent air-air missile capacity at each aircraft’s maximum stealth configuration thus requires at least twice as many F-35s as F-22s. Plus the cost of the extra aerial tankers and other infrastructure required for long-range missions.

    The RAND study also spends a great deal of time on the core American assumptions concerning “beyond visual range” air to air combat, and the current and future capabilities of SU-30 family aircraft. The implications of its examination do affect the F-35′s fighting qualities – and they will be significant to some of the plane’s potential customers.

    RAND’s discussion begins by predicting poorer beyond visual range missile kill performance than current models suggest when facing capable enemy aircraft, observing that BVR missile kills since the 1990s generally involved poorly-equipped targets. It also notes the steep rise and then drop in modern infrared missile performance, as countermeasures improved.

    Meanwhile, key radar advances are already deployed in the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and existing IRST (infra-red scan and track) systems deployed on advanced Russian and European fighters are extending enemy detection ranges against radar-stealthy aircraft. Fighter radar pick-up capability of up to 25 nautical miles by 2020 is proposed against even ultra-stealthy aircraft like the F-22, coupled with IRST ability to identify AMRAAM missile firings and less infrared-stealthy aircraft at 50 nautical miles or more.

    The F-35′s lower infrared and radar stealth levels mean that these advances will affect it more than they’ll affect the F-22. Especially if one assumes a fighter aircraft whose prime in-service period stretches to 2050.

    The clear implication of the RAND study is that the F-35 is very likely to wind up facing many more “up close and personal” opponents than its proponents suggest, while dealing with effective beyond-visual-range infrared-guided missiles as an added complication. Unlike the F-22, the F-35 is described as “double inferior” to modern SU-30 family fighters within visual range combat; thrust and wing loading issues are summed up in one RAND background slide as “can’t [out]turn, can’t [out]climb, can’t [out]run.”

  • Ray Gonda

    For those who would rather watch videos than read:

    1) Two perspectives on the F-35 program from the Australian government’s new outlet – a reputable source of news.

    F35 JSF Stealth or How the West was Lost

    2) The way in which the Air Forces version of the F-35 would fight. The complete strategy require the participation of the more maneuverable F-22.

    Dogfights of the Future