The Vermont Guard has a new leader — Brig. Gen. Steven Cray, who was overwhelmingly elected adjutant general by a vote of the Legislature on Thursday.
Congrats, dude! Now about that whole F-35 thing...
After winning with 140 votes, Cray faced a scrum of reporters outside the House chamber eager to learn more about the guy succeeding Michael Dubie as head of the 2600-4000-member Vermont National Guard.
Cray easily beat three other contenders, including anti-F-35 candidate, Jimmy Leas, a South Burlington lawyer who is not a Guard member. Another candidate dropped out last month after an anonymous letter accused him of failing to adequately address allegations of sexual harassment in the Guard.
During Cray's first impromptu press conference, it didn't take long for the subject to turn to the potential basing of F-35 fighter jets on the Air Guard base at Burlington International Airport. Asked if he thinks the Air Guard will have a future if the F-35 doesn't come, Cray said, "I do. It will be different."
Cray said the Guard could find nonflying missions to sustain it, should the Air Force base the F-35s elsewhere, but he's not sure what they would be. That's a slightly more optimistic picture than former adjutant general Michael Dubie painted last June, when he told reporters "there is no plan B" for the Vermont Air Guard base if the F-35s aren't based at BTV.
"There's not a menu of options out there," Cray told reporters Thursday. "Air National Guard units around our country have transitioned from flying missions to numerous other missions. What does happen, though, is that most of those units shrink in size and capabilities, and that's something that I don't think our state wants to see. Certainly the capabilities that we have, just by being chosen for the F-35, tells you we're the best."
The F-35 is already the most expensive weapons system in human history, the program having doubled in cost over the last decade to $396 billion. Meanwhile, the plane has been plagued by pilot helmet problems, it has never dropped a bomb and it doesn't have operational software, according to a new story in Time magazine. The plane's fate is made more uncertain by looming federal budget cuts — known as the sequester — that could threaten F-35 funding.
But Cray said he remains "very confident" the F-35 program will get off the ground. "It is a program that will succeed," he said. "It's a capability that our nation needs. There's no debating the fact that fighter aircraft like our F-16s are reaching their service life. They will need to be recapitalized, and our nation needs this capability for its defense."
Cray did say, however, that the sequester could have a significant impact on other Guard activities, and could lead to furloughs of military technicians for a couple of days a week. He could not say how many personnel would be affected.
"It's serious for our Department of Defense, for sure," Cray said. "For Vermonters, there is a significant amount of folks that could be furloughed under this that will have a real impact on money that goes into their pockets."
Leas did not receive a single nomination by lawmakers during a joint session of the House and Senate Thursday. He received four votes during the balloting.
Leas (pictured) criticized Cray for "putting the federal mission way ahead of the interests of Vermonters" by supporting the F-35 basing.
"The F-35 is going to be far more of a disaster to Vermont — if you just count the number of homes destroyed — than Hurricane Irene was," Leas said. "This is a serious, serious thing facing our state."
Leas said Guard officials previously said the base would actually lose jobs if the fighter plane came "because maintenance for that plane is going to be centralized somewhere else. So we're not protecting jobs by advocating for the F-35. What we're doing is, we're putting the property of thousands of Vermonters at risk."
And it's the Air Force saying that, "not me," Leas added. "They're saying that 2944 homes in the four communities around the airport will be unsuitable for residential use. They already demolished 120 homes because of F-16 noise. So we know it happens."
Leas said F-35 opponents are hoping to persuade Cray and other state leaders to "protect the property and families here in Vermont." Opponents are fighting the basing through the Act 250 process as well, he said, arguing that the new planes represente a change in use for the airport sufficient to trigger Vermont's environmental review process.
Cray will officially take charge on March 1 at a ceremony at Camp Johnson in Colchester.