With about six months left before the Vermont Air National Guard receives its new fleet of F-35A fighter aircraft, opponents of the move have mobilized against the possibility that the new fleet will ultimately carry nuclear weapons as part of its mission.
A group of high-profile progressive Vermont political and business leaders, peace activists, grassroots organizers, academics and others gathered Tuesday at the State House in Montpelier to announce the launch of Citizens Against Nuclear Bombs in Vermont.
At the lead was last year’s Democratic candidate for governor James Ehlers, who stood beside Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Greco of South Burlington and other local and state lawmakers and activists.
Together, they decried the current U.S. nuclear arsenal and called upon Vermont lawmakers in Montpelier and Washington, D.C., to push back on the deployment of the F-35s given the possibility of nuclear weapons being based in Vermont.
This fall, the Vermont Air National Guard is scheduled to receive 20 F-35A fighter jets to replace the aging fleet of F-16 fighters that have plied the skies over Vermont and New England since 1986, according to Vermont National Guard spokesman Capt. Mike Arcovitch.
Vermont will be the first National Air Guard base in the country to receive the new aircraft, which would be based at Burlington International Airport.
For the past several years, plans to re-equip the Vermont Guard with the new airplanes have stirred public outcry and debate centered mostly on the noise level of the F-35s. They are expected to be up to four times noisier than the F-16s.
City Councils in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski have all gone on the record opposing basing the new aircraft at Vermont’s main commercial airport.
But now opponents are shifting their focus to what they say is an even greater concern over the potential for nuclear weapons to be part of the guard’s ultimate mission.
“It took me by surprise,” said Greco, whose Air Force career included work with nuclear weapons policy and strategic planning. She pointed to a 2018 public report that indicated that “the Department of Defense has designated the F-35 as its newest nuclear bomber.”
Greco described the B61-12 nuclear weapon that an F-35 could carry when appropriately configured as having approximately three times the strength of the bomb that killed 150,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.
The group is calling upon the state Legislature, Gov. Phil Scott and the state’s congressional delegation “to inform the Department of Defense that no nuclear weapon delivery system will be allowed to be based in Vermont.”
State Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, said a draft resolution is being prepared to be introduced in the House led by Rep. Brian Cina, another Burlington Progressive.
When asked about the mission of the F-35 fighters in Vermont, guard spokesman Arcovitch said he could not comment specifically on any future role nuclear weapons might play.
“It is general U.S. policy not to deploy nuclear weapons with ground units, or aboard surface ships, attack submarines, or aircraft. However, we do not discuss the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard specific ships, submarines, or aircraft,” Arcovich said.
Even if the F-35s arrive in Vermont intended to carry conventional weapons, Greco said there are no guarantees that their future mission won’t include nuclear weapons.
“It is likely they will one day be upgraded to have this capability,” she said.
Greco and others also emphasized that because the F-35 has the potential to carry nuclear weapons, “all F-35 bases will be nuclear targets.”
Responding to a request from The Other Paper, Vermont’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement regarding the citizens group and its concerns: “The job of the Vermont Air Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing has not changed. Only the plane is changing. We are unaware of any intention or proposal to equip the Vermont Air Guard’s current or future aircraft with nuclear weapons. Should such a proposal be made, we would vigorously oppose it.”
U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch have supported the switch to the F-35 fighters but also oppose expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Their statement pointed out that the Vermont Air Guard base is not set up to support bombers equipped with nuclear weapons.
“Burlington Airport does not have the facilities required to securely store nuclear weapons, including hardened hangars and underground bunkers, enhanced perimeter security and specialized handling equipment. Moreover, we would also strongly oppose the appropriation of funds for that construction, if ever proposed,” the joint statement stated.
Ehlers said Vermont’s Congressional delegation should go further: “So stop the appropriations right now so it never gets here.”
Sanders spokesman Dan McLean also noted that Sanders has co-sponsored legislation by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. to completely cancel the nuclear mission of the F-35, regardless of where the planes are based. The legislation also calls for significant reductions in air-, land- and sea-based nuclear weapon systems and facilities.
“At a time when President Trump is pushing hard to build up our nuclear arsenal and has unilaterally suspended the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Sen. Sanders feels strongly that we must redouble our efforts to reduce our nuclear arsenal,” McLean said. “The last thing we should be doing is sparking a new nuclear arms race.”
Cohen spoke against any expansion of nuclear arms, with the most immediate steps starting close to home.
“Maybe we can’t stop the federal government yet, but we can stop it here in Vermont,” he said.
Addressing the crowd of about 50 on Tuesday, Democratic-Progressive Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng said lawmakers need to hear from the public on this issue.
“Together we are powerful. Together we are stronger,” he said.
Other members of the Citizens Against Nuclear Bombs in Vermont advisory committee include Gayle Symington, former Democratic Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives; longtime Vermont peace and social justice activist Robin Lloyd; environmental activist Bill McKibben; Vermont musician Chad Hollister; and Small Dog Electronics co-owner Don Mayer. The full list is online at canbvt.org.