Exit F-16s, Enter F-35s: Big Change At The Vermont Air National Guard

Apr 10, 2019

After more than 30 years, the last F-16 fighter jets flew out of Vermont Saturday, April 6. Now the Vermont Air National Guard is preparing pilots, mechanics and more for the arrival of a new fleet of F-35 jets this fall. We're looking back at the F-16s' years of service in Vermont and getting an update on the controversy and costs surrounding the coming F-35s.

Two recent F-35 crashes, one this week off the coast of Japan and another in South Carolina in September, re-ignited scrutiny of the jets coming to Vermont as soon as this fall.

A fleet of 18 primary and two reserve F-35A Lightning II join strike fighter jets could begin arriving at the Air Guard's Burlington airport facility as early as September.

NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman joined Vermont Edition with an update on the Japan crash and a discussion of the long and beleaguered development of the F-35 jet.

Bowman says the F-35 is designed as a "Swiss Army knife" aircraft, able to act as a bomber, an air-to-air combat aircraft and even an electronic warfare platform to attack an enemy's radar and related systems.

Bowman says defense officials would never say reveal whether any particular aircraft is carrying a nuclear weapon, and instead refer to such aircraft as "nuclear capable."

Some versions of the F-35 are already able to carry nuclear weapons; other versions of the jet can be upgraded or converted to do so.

Critics in and around Burlington have opposed basing the jets in Vermont in part due to some versions of the jets being able to carry nuclear weapons. Opponents argue carrying such bombs — or even storing the weapons — would make the area a target.

Col. Hank Harder, Vice Wing Commander of the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard, says the jets coming to Vermont will not carry nuclear weapons.

Harder says Department of Defense policy forbids confirming or denying the presence of nuclear weapons at any base. But he says nuclear weapons are not in the mix for the Burlington F-35 fleet.

"The F-35A that we at the Vermont Air National Guard are going to get this fall is not the nuclear capable version," Harder tells Vermont Edition.

"Nor are there any plans at this time to make it a nuclear capable version. Nor do we have the nuclear mission here with the Vermont Air National Guard."

Harder says he's confident the planes will fly safely in and out of Vermont. And he says Air Guard first responders are training with their civilian counterparts to respond to any incident.

“They do a lot of training with the surrounding fire departments. It’s called mutual aide," Harder explained.

"So, with South Burlington, Winooski, they’re really trained to respond to any aircraft in the Air Force inventory, and civilian air craft as well.”

After nearly two decades in development, costs for the F-35 have grown into the billions—with each jet costing nearly $120 million dollars.

The Vermont Air Guard’s airport facility has also seen more than $160 million dollars in upgrades to prepare for the F-35s.

VTDigger reporter Mark Johnson also joined the program to talk about the 33 year history of the F-16s in Vermont and the concern and support he's heard from Vermonters regarding the F-35 basing in Vermont.

Broadcast live on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.