The F-35 is so too effective - Against Americans.
Ask anyone (except a politician) in Burlington, Vermont.
It is now generally acknowledged that the F-35 fighter stands tall in the pantheon of U.S. weapons-buying disasters, a mélange of waste, deceit, and mindless incompetence. According to the latest report from the Pentagon's Director of Test and Evaluation, itself a muted document, the plane has at least six design flaws serious enough to cause "death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness” and “may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system" along with 845 other unresolved deficiencies.
This colossal SNAFU is now receiving official recognition as such. The Pentagon's recently unveiled budget for next year proposes buying just 61 F-35s, down 33 from the number originally planned. Quizzed about this significant drop in demand at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 5, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley responded that they were waiting for the "Block 4" F-35s, which have a bundle of modifications aimed at correcting some of the plane's more egregious deficiencies - an implicit admission that blocks one through three don't give Putin much to worry about.
Unique ability to target Americans.
However, if the Russian leader may not lose sleep over the F-35s currently poised on Nato's front line, the same can very certainly not be said for families living around Burlington International Airport, home to the Vermont Air National Guard's 20 F-35s. Though the plane may be signally lacking in offensive capability vis-a-vis foreign enemies - the gun, for example, still doesn't shoot straight and probably never will - it has a unique capability to inflict domestic damage, thanks to its shattering noise, far louder than any other airplane in the inventory, and surely an existential threat when inflicted on well-populated neighborhoods such as those surrounding Burlington’s airport.
One simple set of numbers makes the case. The air force itself defines noise levels of 65 decibels or above as “incompatible with residential use.” According to the air force’s own calculations, at least 6,000 people living close by the airport fall within the 65 decibels-plus zone. Every 10 decibel increase is perceived by the human ear as a doubling in sound level. Burlington's F-35s regularly generate levels of 110 decibels or more. They do that four days a week, Tuesday through Friday, as well as once a month on weekends. But on February 16 the airport's neighbors got an extra dose. Twelve F-35As from Hill Air Force Base in Utah that had stopped off on their way to Germany took off again at 3.30 in the morning.
At least they can take off, sometimes.
The dispatch of these planes to Europe underlined the futility of the program so far as fending off the Russian menace is concerned. As the damning operational test report makes clear, once airborne, the F-35 isn't necessarily much of a threat to anyone. I called Dan Grazier, senior defense fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, an indefatigable watchdog of the program, to ask how many of the planes would be available at any one time to at least take off. "Based on the overall availability rate in the testing report, eight would be a good number of aircraft out of that batch capable of operating at any one moment, "he told me. “That being said, I'm sure the leaders at Hill only sent the most reliable F-35s they have on hand. They have at least 80 F-35s at Hill to choose from, so the actual number would likely be higher." But, according to the air force's own figures, as unearthed by Grazier, just 54% of the F-35A fleet (costing at least $109 million per copy) is fully mission capable, on average, at any one time. (The figures for the B and C models, used by the Marines and Navy respectively, are far, far, worse.) This is well below the 80% fully mission capable rate considered necessary for an effective aircraft fleet. So, assuming the Hill planes now in Germany represent the cream of the available crop, we can expect that perhaps seven or eight out of the twelve are in full combat mode if and when needed, at best. Meanwhile, the unlucky homeowners around Burlington are left to experience the offensive capabilities of the F-35 as deployed against Americans at home.
Don’t go outside. Don’t open the windows.
"It's violent, hits you in the gut," Richard Joseph, an 82 year-old artist who lives a mile and a half from the airport runway, told me. "I have six pairs of ear protectors strategically placed around the house, because you only have a few seconds before the noise becomes unbearable." As I started to reply, a deep, angry, roar came over the phone. "That was an F-35 landing," he said a moment later, "I couldn't hear what you were saying." Joseph now times his walks outside the home and custom-built studio where he has lived since 2008 to avoid being caught in the open when the "Green Mountain Boys" are blasting off, usually between nine and ten am, with as many as eight planes taking off in rapid sequence.
The F-35s began arriving in Burlington 2019, with the entirely predictable consequence of making life miserable for anyone living adjacent to the airport. While the effect has been hard enough on older residents like Joseph, it has been even more serious for young children. A searing investigation by Colin Flanders in Seven Days - "Sound Effects: In the F-35s' Flightpath, Vermonters' Lives have Changed" - includes accounts of toddlers soiling themselves in terror as the shattering blast rips the air and parents dash for heavy-duty ear protectors. Chamberlin Elementary School, which sits less than half a mile from the runway, has now installed a “positive ventilation system,” so as to avoid opening the windows, ever.
Enduring shame of the liberals
To their enduring shame, Vermont's supposedly liberal congressional delegation, Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Congressman Peter Welch (along with Vermont Governor Phil Scott and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger) have all steadfastly championed the F-35's local basing, assiduously ignoring the pleas of their constituents on grounds that it generates jobs. This is the usual excuse offered by bipartisans cheering on the military-industrial-complex, although the F-35s appear to have generated zero growth in employment over the preceding Guard squadron of F-16s, a plane that can at least perform its presumed function.
Rest assured, it does one job well.
Despite such carping, it must be said that the F-35 has been entirely successful in its primary mission: amplifying the revenue streams of the Lockheed-Martin corporation and other interested parties. Even as the U.S. Air Force appears to be losing enthusiasm for the plane, gullible allies have been eagerly signing up as customers, most recently the Finns, Germans, and Canadians.
People in Burlington might have urged caution, but no one hears what they say.
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In a bizarre way, the US Air Force is disarming itself. The F-35 can't fly and fight, and the KC-46 can't refuel it in flight.
The AF also wants to phase out the F-22. It's too expensive, too unreliable, and it's hamstrung by its short range.
I wrote about the F-35 here, Andrew, citing your work on "the Pentagon Syndrome." https://bracingviews.com/2019/09/16/trillions-for-warplanes-the-case-of-the-f-35/
Remember when Norman Augustine predicted the entire defense budget, I think in 2054, would go to a single plane shared among the AF, Navy, and Marines? Hard to share a plane that so rarely is able to fly! Irony of ironies, it's produced by his old company.
I had a question related to the Spoils of War book, which I read a review of in Responsible Statecraft by Marc Martorell Juyent, linked here: https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/12/31/how-we-benefit-from-the-cockburns-spoils-of-war/.
Juyent notes that you wrote in the book on the wide manufacturing base and high price tag of the B1 -- and especially the F-35 -- as explanations for their replacing the A-10 in the Close Air Support role, even though the A-10 promises less risk of civilian casualties for its flying low and slow. What about the alternative explanation, though, that the military branch in charge of this mission (US Air Force) in fact thinks itself above the Close Air Support role and would prefer to spend money on strategic bombers and attack aircraft in line with its historical focus on bombing? Then it would make sense that the USAF boxed out the A-10 in favor of the B1 and the F-35, which are respectively a strategic bomber and an attack aircraft. For the USAF's favoring strategic bombing over CAS, I cite this recent book https://www.amazon.com/US-Defense-Politics-Origins-Security/dp/1138657646, pp. 104-7. Of course, I recognize (as you write here) that the F-35 is all too ineffectual and bogged down by flaws, but I am mainly concerned here with the "military" aspect of the military-industrial-congressional complex perhaps not factoring into the explanation enough.
Any insights are appreciated, thank you.