An international coalition of anti-F-35 activists gathered virtually today, announcing an open letter calling on President Biden to end the manufacturing and training of F-35 fighter jets. The letter, organized by CodePink, a national grassroots anti-war organization, is signed by over 220 organizations across the world, including dozens in Madison and Wisconsin.
The letter calls on President Biden and members of Congress to end the F-35 program, remove the jets from residential neighborhoods, and end the sale of jets to foreign companies.
This comes as F-35 fighter jets are scheduled to bed down at Truax Field, on Madison’s northside, in spring 2023. The National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing based at Truax is one of the first units across the country to fly the F-35s, the latest version of the jets. But that beddown is coming despite immense community pushback. For years, activists have pushed back on the noise, pollution, and security of having the jets based on Madison’s north side.
According to the Air National Guard’s own final environmental impact statement released in 2020, replacing the recently-departed F-16 jets at Truax Airfield with F-35 jets will not come quietly. While the impact statement showed that around 2,700 people would be subjected to an average sound level of around 65 decibels, or around the volume of a vacuum, the report does not outline how loud the jets will be when landing or takeoff.
Speaking at today’s press conference was Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Ben and Jerry’s is headquartered in Burlington, Vermont –where F-35 jets first touched down near a residential neighborhood in 2019, despite a similar level of community campaigning to stop the jets from coming.
According to a 2012 environmental impact statement for the F-35 program in Burlington, the noise level for an F-35 on takeoff is estimated at 115 decibels, louder than a car horn and a rock concert, and just quieter than a siren. Prolonged exposure to noise over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. Exposure to noise above 120 decibels for more than half a minute can cause hearing loss.
Cohen says that, when the jets came to Vermont, he created a plan to help residents know just how loud they would be.
“The extreme level of noise is a little loud to understand, you can hear decibel numbers but nobody can really relate to it. We created a mobile sound truck that replicated the sound of a F-35, and we were driving it around and the police call-in numbers lit up from complaints in the community, and I was arrested for violating the noise ordinance. It showed that the level of noise was illegal, but the Pentagon gets an exception,” Cohen says.
But the F-35s still landed in Vermont, where thousands of people lived within the noise-affected area, considered generally unsuitable for residential use by the US Air Force.
The letter points to a variety of health impacts of the jets beyond hearing loss – causing low birth weights in newborns, delayed speech development, and difficulties with concentration. Vicki Berenson with Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin was one of the speakers today. She says she’s worried for the people who live around the airport when the F-35s land on Madison’s north side in just a few months.
“I know people who have sold their homes and moved away in anticipation of the F-35s arrival next year. Loud jets, and we have been told that there will be 40% more flights than the F-16s that have been here for years. Not everyone has the means to move, the airbase is located in one of the only remaining affordable neighborhoods in Madison, so there is nowhere to go if you up and sell,” Berenson says.
Taxpayer cost of the jets is another issue mentioned in CodePink’s letter. The letter says that, as of today, the total cost for the country’s F-35 project is $1.7 trillion, most of which stems from the costs of operations and maintenance over the next 66 years.
The letter points to a report from the US Government Accountability Office, or GAO, informally known as the congressional watchdog. The report, published in April of this year, says that even if the Department of Defense stays on schedule with the program (they are currently behind), one-third of the F-35 jets purchased by the department would not undergo full testing, meaning that those jets could potentially see even more maintenance and performance-enhancing costs over time.
Speaking at the press conference today was Kawthar Abdullah with the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a group of Yemeni organizers working to educate people on the Yemen war. Abdullah says that another issue with the F-35s is what could happen if the US sells the jets to foreign countries.
“Over 300,000 Yemenis have been killed (in the war). One can only imagine what they would do with access to F-35s. For me, as a Yemeni-American who has lived in Yemen during (the aggression), I can tell you first-hand how hard and painful it is to see your home reduced to ashes by Saudi airstrikes in a matter of seconds. Providing F-35s to Saudi Arabia and UAE would potentially mean more airstrikes, indiscriminate airstrikes, airstrikes on homes, supermarkets, schools, farms, public roads, soccer stadiums, hospitals, buses filled with children, and other civilian places,” Abdullah says.
Of the over 220 letter signees are at least eighteen groups and businesses from Madison, with another at least 16 groups across Wisconsin. One of those groups is 350 Wisconsin, a Madison-based grassroots organization fighting to solve the climate crisis by 2030. John Greenler, Executive Director of 350 Wisconsin, says he signed the letter because he thinks the letter shows how F-35s are both a local and global issue.
“There are a number of clear examples of how F-35s are a significant concern in terms of climate change. Those range from things that are really specific to us here in Madison, to how things are playing on the global arena as well. This scales out significantly,” Greenler says.
The first F-35s are expected to arrive in April 2023, with all jets slated to arrive in Madison by May 2024, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Photo courtesy: Chali Pittman / WORT Flickr