Vermont furor could help McEntire land F-35s

jwilkinson@thestate.comJuly 3, 2012 

Controversy surrounding the decision to base the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at a Vermont air base could give Eastover’s McEntire Joint National Guard Base another shot at landing the futuristic fighters.

Getting the stealthy F-35s to replace McEntire’s aging F-16 squadron would help protect the 1,500 jobs at the rural base from another expected round of base realignment and closures, as well as the tens of millions of dollars the base pumps into the Midlands economy every year.

The jet has been plagued by delays from a proposed $450 million-plus engine makeover and hampered by defense budget cuts. But it’s set to replace the F-16s, A-10s and F/A-18 fighter jets now being used by the Air Force, Marines and Navy, respectively. The Pentagon plans to build 1,700 over the next couple of decades, with modifications for the different branches, and dole them out in phases.

A decision on the Air National Guard base that will get the first round of jets is expected this fall. Another announcement on which bases will get the new fighters, however, isn’t expected until 2017 — after the base closure and realignment decisions are expected to be made. So if McEntire doesn’t get the jets in this round, it could be targeted for closure before another round is announced.

The U.S. Air Force has said the Vermont Air National Guard Base in Burlington was the “preferred location” for a squadron of 18 to 24 of the new fighters, which use stealth technology to knock out enemy air defenses and provide close air support for ground troops. But public hearings on the environmental impact of the jets — primarily noise — revealed stiff opposition to locating the planes at the base in Burlington, the largest city in environmentally conscious Vermont.

So the Air Force could decide to place the jets at another Air National Guard base. The other Air Guard finalists for the first round were McEntire, Jacksonville, Fla., and Mountain Home, Idaho.

McEntire spokesman Maj. James Roth said all the installations will be judged on their own merits, and “the only real impact for McEntire, should other installations struggle to stay on or completely fall off the list, is ... the list gets shorter.”

Five squadrons of the jets already are slated to replace the F/A-18 carrier-based fighters at Beaufort Marine Air Station. Those jets are to be “bedded down” — or based — at Beaufort by 2015.

Earlier this year, the Air Force picked the Vermont 158th Fighter Wing “Green Mountain Boys” for the first round of Air Guard’s F-35s because the transition wouldn’t disrupt any of its present missions and because the squadron often trains with nearby U.S. F-15 fighters and Canadian F-18s.

But the F-35s are noisier than F-16s. People in neighborhoods around the Vermont air base, particularly in South Burlington and Winooski, have voiced strong opposition to them. They started a Facebook page opposing the jets, lined the street with signs in outdoor protests and spoke up at public hearings.

Critical posts on blogs and Facebook pages range from fears that the jets will lower property values to charges that they represent money-wasting warmongering.

Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow said in an interview with The State newspaper that the Vermont base is located at Burlington International Airport. He said F-35 takeoffs would be minimal compared to commercial traffic, amounting to “only eight to 10 minutes during an 18-hour flight day, four days a week.” He added the F-16s now at the base take off with full noisy afterburners, which the F-35s would not have to do, so the noise on takeoff could be less. The jets also would go vertical by the end of the runway to lessen noise over the city and other noise reduction measures would be taken, he said.

The Air Force is set to make final decision on where to base the first Air Guard F-35s later this year, possibly in November. Should the Vermont base not get the F-35s, he said, its relevance would be compromised.

“If you’re not relevant … it’s really hard to say what the future will be” in light of budget cuts, he said.

No complaints have surfaced in environmental impact hearings in the military-friendly Midlands, where whizzing jets, bugle calls and the occasional artillery round are viewed as an economy-boosting sound of freedom. In addition, McEntire is home to fleets of Army helicopters, making it a more versatile and economical installation for the military as a whole, said Col. Michael Hudson, commander of McEntire’s169th Fighter Wing, the “Swamp Foxes.”

The base owns its own runways, unlike Burlington, and there are no encroachment issues at the rural base on Sumter Highway. In addition, the Swamp Foxes unit has a homeland security mission — protecting the skies over the Southeast — in addition to flying missions in Afghanistan, where its fighters are now, Hudson said.

“We’re an ideal base,” he said. “I don’t think there is a better place to put the F-35s. It’s a wonderful, wonderful base with a great history. And the (169th) probably has the best reputation of any Guard fighter team in the Air Force.”

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