On Monday night, City Councilor Meaghan Emery presented her colleagues with a resolution against the Burlington International Airport-bound F-35 fighter jets gaining nuclear capacity and joining the nation’s nuclear arsenal. It was the latest chapter in an ongoing saga in which city officials, the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) and city residents have debated the impending arrival of the aircraft. After much – at times heated – discussion, councilors decided to continue the conversation, perhaps in a forum with community and VTANG members, at a future date.
“When I became aware that a plane that we have been slated to receive here could potentially, without any knowledge or any input from our residents, become actively engaged in that nuclear arsenal, I could not sit here and say nothing,” Emery said.
Emery, who moved to South Burlington in 2002, said at the time she was very much aware of the F-16 fighter jets based here, but still happy to be a resident. However, in 2008 she started to see homes in her neighborhood set for demolition following the F-16s switch to new, louder, engines. There was no public input on the switch and no notice to city residents, she said.
“We have to learn from our history with the F-16s,” Emery said. “We had no control.”
The new aircrafts, F-35As, are supersonic, single-seat, all-weather stealth fighter jets that can fly at higher altitudes than the F-16s.
The resolution, with language largely borrowed from similar documents being presented to the Vermont House of Representatives and the Senate Chamber, called for city councilors to take a stance against the F-35s gaining nuclear capacity and joining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It was intended to be sent to the governor, Vermont congressional delegation and Patrick Shanahan acting U.S. Secretary of Defense. It cited Sen. Patrick Leahy’s written statements about reducing the number of nuclear armaments. Likewise, it quoted Sen. Bernie Sanders’ similar sentiments on the weapons.
But according to a statement from Guard Capt. Mikel Arcovitch in answer to emailed questions from Councilor Tom Chittenden last week, the F-35A Block 3F jets headed for Burlington International Airport will not have the hardware necessary for a nuclear mission. Likewise, the air force has no plans to add that hardware to them, Arcovitch wrote.
With that information, Chittenden voiced opposition to the resolution.
“I can’t support this resolution as it’s currently stated because it’s really just setting up a scenario that’s not supported by the facts,” he said. He added that while he “would never support unduly endangering any citizen” he found the resolution was not relevant, necessary or defensible.
“I understand, from various news sources, that the F-16 model was equally nuclear capable but that none of the F-16s based at BIA ever were,” Chittenden said.
Furthermore, he added that the language of the resolution was not clear and made it seem as though, should councilors sign it, they were opposing the basing of the aircraft itself at Burlington International Airport.
Chairwoman Helen Riehle said she supported the resolution, and that it tells the congressional delegation and secretary of defense the city council does not want them to make the Burlington International Airport-based F-35s nuclear capable. She added the guard’s interest in Vermont as an ideal location for national security in the northern hemisphere was of note.
“If we are so important to national security and our current administration believes that nuclear capability is really important for the safety of our country, why wouldn’t they change their minds and possibly change the planes that are coming here?” she asked.
Chittenden replied that he trusts the guard’s expertise in national security and does not believe the councilors have the expertise or jurisdiction to dictate rules about how the air force conducts its operations. Councilor David Kaufman said he agreed with Chittenden “100 percent,” except for the nuclear capacity element of F-35s.
“The nuclear capable F-35s belong on a military base,” Kaufman said. “Not at a regional airport that serves hundreds of thousands of people from the general public on a daily basis.”
But Kaufman added that he does support the National Guard and the switch from F-16s to F-35s.
He suggested Emery re-word the resolution to be clear it is not against the F-35s, but rather against the aircrafts gaining nuclear capability.
Councilor Tim Barritt said he felt the resolution would have no real impact and was instead a “back door” method to make another comment about the F-35s.
“Even if you were to pass this, you’ll never know what the F-35 is capable of doing when it comes here, or what it’s going to carry,” he said, “because that’s all top-secret stuff.”
Kaufman suggested the council reword the resolution to say, “no nukes, and leave it at that.” Barritt said specifying that the council did not want bombs in the city was the important part. But Emery met that statement with opposition.
“Why do you think they attacked Pearl Harbor?” she asked Barritt. “Because those were their battleships. Not because that’s where all the weapons were stored, it’s because those were the delivery systems.”
Towards the end of the conversation, councilors opened the discussion to the public. Retired Air Force Colonel and anti-F-35 activist Rosanne Greco came forward to offer her input and military expertise. She emphasized that it is not just the bombs that make the planes dangerous, as much as their function as delivery systems.
“It doesn’t matter whether ours are, in fact, nuclear capable,” she said. “Because the secretary of defense said the F-35 is our newest strategic bomber, all of the F-35 bases will immediately be targeted.”
Next, South Burlington resident Jennifer Decker urged councilors not to “water down” or change their proposed resolution.
“As my representatives, all of you are responsible for my safety and well being living in my community,” Decker said. “This is a very important resolution in terms of taking a stand on that.”
Several other community members spoke out in favor of a resolution and against allowing nuclear capable aircraft into the community. Councilors decided to hold a future meeting to continue the conversation.
“This is the moment where we have a say,” Emery said. “It’s not going to be in October, November 2019.”