Right to the Point (5/6/10)

Let’s land the F-35 in South Burlington

May 6, 2010

By Mike Benevento

Over the past few months, Air Force leaders met with government officials and the public throughout the local area to discuss the feasibility of upgrading the Air National Guard’s fighter jets. Currently, Vermont’s Air Guard flies the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Air Force is investigating replacing the F-16 with the top-of-the-line F-35 Lightning II jet fighter.

You would think that replacing 30-year-old fighters with brand-new planes would be an easy decision. The proposed switch, however, is not without controversy.

The Green Mountain Boys have flown the F-16 Falcon ever since the fighter replaced the venerable F-4 Phantom back in 1986. Although the Falcon entered production during the 1970s, it still ranks among the world’s best at accomplishing air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Even still, tremendous aircraft technological and performance improvements have been made during the past 30 years. The F-35 incorporates these developments.

According to its manufacturer, the F-35 is a “stealthy (radar-evading), supersonic, multi-role fighter designed to meet United States’ requirement for an affordable next generation fighter.” Using the most modern military aircraft technologies and employing state-of-the-art electronics and weapons, the Lightning II is expected to be able to penetrate enemy defenses at a high rate of speed, drop its bombs and return home unscathed. Because of its agility and accuracy, the aircraft has very effective airstrike abilities.

Without a doubt, the high-tech F-35 is much more capable than the aging Falcon — out-performing the F-16 in all types of missions. This includes the air defense mission, which involves protecting the United States and our allies from aerial attack. Using its stealth, the F-35 will be able to intercept enemy aircraft and employ missiles before the opposing pilots can even detect it. This is a huge advantage in dogfights.

Critics of stationing F-35s in South Burlington mainly cite the increased noise levels of the new jets compared to F-16s. While it is difficult to be precise, the consensus is that the new fighter will be about 20 percent louder during most phases of flight.

Since nobody likes extra noise, the Guard will do its best to reduce its impacts. To help minimize jet noise, military aviators will continue to adhere to strict noise abatement procedures while flying around Burlington Airport and surrounding areas.

While the list is long, here are a few reasons why all Vermonters should want our pilots flying the F-35 — the best available aircraft around.

First, Vermont Air Guard pilots are our family members, friends and neighbors. It’s only natural that we would want them better protected should they fly into harm’s way. We owe it to them to ensure the highest probability of their safe return from war. As an added bonus, besides being more survivable in combat, improved technology means the F-35 should be safer to fly during peacetime operations.

Second, because the F-35 is superior to the F-16 in the air-to-surface role, it will better protect American troops fighting overseas. Delivering accurate bombs on target will save American lives as well as reduce accidental civilian casualties.

Additionally, because of the Lightning II’s stealth, less electronic warfare and escort fighter support will be needed to assist the F-35 in its missions — reducing the overall number of aircrews at risk.

Increased pilot survivability and better support of our soldiers should be enough to convince F-35 doubters. But if not, perhaps economic repercussions from failing to upgrade airplanes will.

No matter what, eventually the F-16 will be retired. When that day comes — without a replacement aircraft — the Air Guard unit at the Burlington International Airport could end up on the base realignment and closure list. If that happens, the long-term economic ramifications to both Chittenden County and Vermont will be quite unpleasant.

Since the base employs almost 1,000 personnel, the loss of their good-paying and high-tech jobs will have a severely negative impact on the local economy — as well as the state’s tax revenue. With an uncertain economic future, Vermont cannot afford to lose so many important jobs.

The Air Force expects to decide whether to base F-35s at the Burlington Airport late next year, with the proposed arrival of the new planes no earlier than 2018.

We owe it to our troops and pilots to provide them with the world’s best equipment. The better equipped they are, the greater their chance of returning home safely. The multi-role F-35 Lightning II significantly skews the odds in their favor.

Please support bringing F-35s to Vermont. A little extra noise is a minor detraction compared to the benefits our country’s military will receive.


Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. Mike and his wife Kristine reside in Williston with their two sons, Matthew and Calvin. Please send comments to VTMikeBenevento@gmail.com.