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Antiwar candidate Bernie Sanders faces backlash over the $1.2 trillion war machine he brought to Vermont

Key Points
  • This fall, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jets will come to Vermont to be stationed at the Air National Guard Base at Burlington International Airport.
  • The jets are rumored to be nuclear-capable, and citizen groups, companies and environmental activists want the program removed from the state.
  • Bernie Sanders, the state's junior senator and a 2020 candidate for the presidency, was one of several officials who brought the program to the state.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in the capital of his home state of Vermont on May 25, 2019, in Montpelier.
Scott Eisen | Getty Images

This fall, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jets will come to Vermont to be stationed at the Air National Guard Base at Burlington International Airport. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the state's junior senator and a 2020 candidate for the presidency, was one of several officials who brought the program to the state, but now some are saying they don't want it there.

The program has been valuable to Vermont's economy. Joan Goldstein, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development, told that its impact on the state's aerospace and aviation industries has been nothing but positive. And that's been key, considering the state ranks 44th in the nation in terms of economic growth and in last place for its workforce in the 2019 CNBC Top States for Business study released on Wednesday.

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"Estimates from Lockheed Martin indicate there are three suppliers located in Vermont for the F-35 Lightning II that provide 1,610 direct and indirect jobs, with an economic impact of $222 million," she said. "Vermont is home to a rapidly growing $2 billion aerospace and aviation industry, with more than 250 small- and medium-sized enterprises that act as a supply chain hub for global aerospace and defense companies."

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Be that as it may, Citizens Against Nuclear Bombers in Vermont want the jet removed from its backyard. Its primary objection is based on the U.S. Department of Defense's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which states that the plane will be capable of using nuclear weapons.

"The United States is incorporating nuclear capability onto the forward-deployable, nuclear-capable F-35 as a replacement for the current aging [dual-capable aircraft]," the report reads.

A grassroots antiwar movement

This is not the first time the $1.2 trillion program has faced opposition from Vermont residents. In 2018, Burlington voters approved a resolution asking the Air Force to cancel the basing due to concerns about potential noise pollution. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger refused to sign it, in part because of what he described as potential harm to the state economy.

A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter approaches at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.

"I firmly believe that when the F-35s come, most people will experience the noise impacts to be similar to what they are today," he said. "And in contrast to that, I think there would be very substantial adverse impacts on the economy and certainly on the airport if we were to choose not to have the F-35s come here or the Air Force were to change its decision."

Citizens Against Nuclear Bombers in Vermont, meanwhile, oppose the basing of the fighters, revenue be damned. The group includes Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's and environmental activist Bill McKibben, as well as retired military personnel and local business owners.

"Locally, we don't believe this weapon belongs at a commercial airport located in densely populated residential neighborhoods," James Ehlers, campaign director for Citizens Against Nuclear Bombs in Vermont, told CNBC.

Lockheed Martin would not provide a comment for this article, but Capt. Mikel R. Arcovitch of the Vermont National Guard told CNBC that the F-35 Lightning II that's coming to Burlington International Airport is not nuclear-capable, and there were no plans for that to change.

We don't believe this weapon belongs at a commercial airport located in densely populated residential neighborhoods.
James Ehlers
campaign director for Citizens Against Nuclear Bombs in Vermont

"The F-35A's coming to Vermont will not have the hardware to be nuclear-capable," Arcovitch said. "Vermont does not currently have a nuclear mission, nor are there plans for Vermont to have a nuclear mission."

Nuclear-capable or not, the F-35 program has long been the subject of controversy, in part due to potentially disastrous technical problems that have plagued it for years. In 2015 an F-35A experienced "catastrophic engine failure" during a training mission, and just months later it experienced ejection-seat malfunctions that temporarily resulted in prohibiting pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying the plane.

In June, Defense News reported that the jet is still experiencing significant technical problems. These include sudden increases in air pressure inside the cockpit that cause "excruciating" ear and sinus pain in pilots, as well as issues affecting the helmet-mounted display and night-vision camera.

A thorn in the senator's side

The jet's presence in Vermont may also pose problems for Sanders as he seeks the nomination of the Democratic party for the presidency. He has long been an opponent of increased defense spending — in May, when he voted against one of the most enormous defense budgets in recent U.S. history — but that same defense spending is critical to Vermont's economy, and Capt. Arcovitch said that the F-35 program brings in revenue for the state's growing aerospace sector.

"The total number of contractor positions the F-35A creates is around 30," he said. "All of the jobs are directly, indirectly or related to the aerospace job sector."

He said that those positions include simulator support, personnel to protect classified materials, autonomic logistics information system technicians and field service engineers and specialists. Further jobs include construction workers specific to the F-35A mission, which he said have been good for roughly $60 million in contracts. There will also be approximately 50 aircraft maintainers.

Only time will tell if Sen. Sanders' supporters will overlook his support for this program, which contrasts sharply with his platform. Neither Sen. Sanders nor his office responded to requests for comment, but on March 11 he took part in a joint statement that included Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, which not only denied that the F-35 was nuclear-capable but asserted that they would oppose it if it were.

"The job of the Vermont Air Guard's 158th Fighter Wing has not changed," the statement read. "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."

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Despite Sanders' statements and campaign positions, James Ehlers of Citizens Against Nuclear Bombs in Vermont said that his organization will still take the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at face value.

"The [Nuclear Posture Review] is a rather solid source, wouldn't you agree?" he said. "Internal communications between the [Department of Defense], [Vermont Air National Guard] and Sen. Leahy's staff indicate that the aircraft to be based in Burlington will be upgraded to the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb variant, otherwise known as Block 4."

Ehlers added that if Sen. Sanders sees evidence that shows the F-35 will, in fact, become nuclear-capable, then he would expect the senator to push revenue considerations aside and reverse his support for basing the plane in Vermont.

While the jets are scheduled to arrive in Burlington this fall, it's unlikely that the opposition will die down anytime soon. In the meantime, Capt. Arcovitch of the Vermont National Guard said he's just happy to be getting the plane.

"We are honored as the first National Guard unit selected to receive the F-35A," he said. "It is truly a testament to the professionalism and excellence of our airmen now, and that served before."