Will nukes accompany F-35s to Vermont?

Two U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., visit McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., for the first time to train with F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter pilots from the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing, March 22, 2016. The aircraft conducted 4th and 5th generation integration fighter training, during local training missions, Mar. 21st and 22nd. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Ashleigh Pavelek)

Guard can ‘neither confirm nor deny’

By Jasper Craven

For VTDigger

In an undated internal analysis of press coverage tied to the proposed basing of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, Vermont Air National Guard leaders detailed five potential media questions “We Hope We Don’t Get.”

The first four dreaded questions were often asked throughout the years-long debate over the controversial plane’s basing, and included “Why is the F35A four times louder?” and “Why would you be in favor of bringing a plane here when the Accident Potential Zone extends two miles into Winooski?”

But the fifth and final question is one that has been rarely discussed, and is almost impossible to answer: “Where are you planning on storing the nuclear weapons that are part of the F-35 arsenal?”

Opponents of the F-35 in Burlington have long raised the specter of nuclear weapons coming to Chittenden County along with the F-35, and the plane was designed with nuclear payload capability. In May 2013, when the plane’s opponents asked the Vermont Air Guard about nuclear bombs being based in Burlington, even military officials seemed unsure of the answer.

“We haven’t talked about nuclear capabilities of the F-35A yet so this (question) may take us some time,” wrote an Air Force public affairs officer at the Pentagon to her Vermont counterpart. “We’re asking about it.”

Asked last week about the potential of nuclear-capable planes coming to Burlington, 1st Lt. Mikel Arcovitch, a spokesperson for the Vermont Air National Guard, said “it is U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific location.”

When asked the same question, Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington, which has jurisdiction over the airport, said: “I don’t have any information on that.”

The decision to base the F-35s in Vermont was finalized in 2013 after a four-year review of more than 200 locations. Local groups have been fighting the plan ever since over concerns about noise, safety and the possible nuclear role.

City councils in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski recently passed resolutions to halt the basing and to request an alternate flying mission for the Air Guard.

But the position of the municipal boards has been ignored by politicians who have the power to ask the Air Force to change the basing. Instead, Weinberger, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch have backed the proposal. In a recent letter to the Burlington mayor, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the F-35 basing is a done deal.

In an internal 2010 Air Force slideshow presentation obtained by VTDigger, the agency walks through the ideal base conditions for the F-35. One of the benefits of a base, the slideshow asserts, is “rapid IOC (Initial Operational Capability) attainment by pooling broad spectrum of nuclear expertise and operational missions” and “ability to hire civilian nuclear expertise from local area.”

The 18 F-35A’s scheduled to arrive at Burlington International Airport in September 2019 will be running block 3F software, which doesn’t allow for the deployment of nuclear weapons. However, the newest F-35 software — called Block 4 — makes it possible for the aircraft to carry nuclear weapons. It is expected that many of the F-35s deployed with the old software will be upgraded, and military leaders are now casting the F-35 as a key element of nuclear deterrence strategy.

According to nuclear arms experts, even if a fleet is upgraded to the Block 4 software, there must be an exhaustive review process led by the Department of Defense to certify a plane for a nuclear delivery mission.

“I have not seen any Air Force statements on which units will get the Block 4 F-35s,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

“Not all the wings are assigned a nuclear capability,” he said in an interview Wednesday, “so it remains to be seen whether the version coming to Vermont will actually get that mission.”

Should the Vermont fighter jets be made capable of carrying nuclear weapons, there likely would be no press release announcing the news. Some military bases with nuclear-capable planes don’t store weapons on site, while others do.

If Burlington were to house nuclear weapons, the Air Force would have to upgrade the weapons depot at Burlington International, which currently does not have the proper security features to accommodate such weapons. Any upgrades to the weapons depot could spur an Environmental Impact Statement, which would be open to public comment, Kristensen said.

The fleet of F-35s heading to European allies will be nuclear capable. Those purchased by Israel — and recently used in the first “operational attack” by an F-35 stealth fighter — are not currently nuclear capable.

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