When the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission delivered its final report to President Bush last month detailing which military installations should be closed or scaled back, communities around the country greeted the news with either sighs of relief or a collective wringing of hands. In Burlington, however, the 2005 BRAC Report was a minor news blip. Few Vermonters seemed interested, or even aware, that the Vermont Air National Guard base at Burlington International Airport might have been among the 19 Air Guard units around the country with planes and personnel grounded or reassigned.
Vermont's Air National Guard unit emerged from the BRAC review process unscathed, thanks in large part to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who co-chairs the Senate's National Guard caucus. But now, VTANG could face a new threat in an unlikely political venue. Next week, a local community group plans to ask the Burlington City Council to take a closer look at how VTANG's mission has changed, and to decide if the city should continue leasing the Guard land and runway space at Burlington International Airport.
Take Back the Air Guard describes itself as an "ad hoc, grassroots, nonpartisan coalition of Burlington residents who intend to stop the Pentagon's misuse of our Air Guard and our airport, compel the Pentagon to restore the Air Guard's proper mission of defending this state and this nation, and keep the men and women of the Air Guard at home, where they belong."
Hal Cochran is a retired lawyer and teacher living in Burlington and one of Take Back the Air Guard's lead organizers. Cochran asserts that since 1998, the Pentagon has transformed VTANG from a strictly defensive wing that patrols the airspace of the continental United States into a bomber squadron that also flies overseas combat missions. Cochran points out that in late 2004, pilots and F-16s from Vermont's 158th Fighter Wing were sent to Iraq to fly "close air support" missions during the siege of Najaf, which effectively meant dropping bombs on Iraqis. He claims the Wing has evolved into a "first-tier combat unit" equipped with state-of-the-art technology and employing several hundred full-time Department of Defense employees. In short, the Burlington Airport is quietly being turned into a full-time, active-duty bomber base.
"They didn't ask the city if they could base bombers in the airport, they just did it," says Cochran. Take Back the Air Guard plans to ask the city council to adopt a resolution condemning this change in mission and recommending that the city terminate its lease agreement with the federal government until the bombers are removed from the airport and the Air Guard is restored to "its traditional and proper mission" -- air defense of the homeland. The lease agreement, which concerns 223 acres of city-owned land, is set to expire on June 30, 2008.
But VTANG spokesperson Lt. Col. Sonny Schumacher challenges the citizen group's fundamental assumptions, asserting that the 158th Fighter Wing is fulfilling the same dual state and federal missions it's always performed. At the state level, he explains, the Air Guard's job is to assist in times of civil unrest, natural disasters and other emergencies when asked to do so by the governor. Its federal mission, Schumacher says, is to provide the U.S. Air Force with combat-ready personnel and equipment that can be used during wartime and other national emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Schumacher, who flew F-16s for 10 years with the Vermont Air Guard, says overseas combat missions are nothing new for the 158th Fighter Wing, whose history dates back to July 1946. He notes that Vermont Air National Guard personnel and equipment have been deployed in every major overseas military conflict since Korea, flying both air-to-air and air-to-ground support missions. Schumacher adds that the 158th has also been deployed in a variety of other overseas missions, from defending the southern no-fly zone in Iraq in the 1990s to tracking aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs from South America.
Schumacher denies the suggestion that the Air Guard facility at Burlington Airport is being transformed into an active-duty base. He believes that some of this confusion may have arisen from the public's misunderstanding of a new Air Force practice called "community basing" -- or the assignment of active-duty Air Force personnel to Air National Guard units. Community basing allows the Air Force and Air National Guard to share equipment, personnel and training at a significant cost savings.
Here's how it works, according to Schumacher and VTANG documents: Unlike active-duty Army soldiers, active-duty Air Force personnel generally have less experience than Air Guards- men. Community basing allows these younger and less experienced airmen to work and train alongside their Air Guard counterparts while living in the local community.
Again according to Schumacher, this relationship increases VTANG's combat readiness while giving the Air Force "more bang for the buck," since it no longer has to maintain all the services and facilities of an active-duty base such as dorms, commissaries, grocery stores and houses of worship. Community basing also fulfills the Air Force's goal of dispersing its forces, making them less vulnerable to attack, while also increasing the branch's visibility in local communities.
Currently, the Air Force is testing community basing with the Vermont Air National Guard. Since last spring, it's stationed 12 active-duty Air Force maintenance personnel at the VTANG base. Schumacher says both the number and types of personnel could be expanded, depending on how this trial run goes. He won't say how many more airmen may be stationed in Burlington.
But Cochran maintains that permanently assigning active-duty Air Force people in Burlington represents a fundamental shift in VTANG's mission. Currently, 330 of the 1058 members of the Air National Guard are full-time federal employees. Cochran contends that if community basing proves successful, it could result in hundreds more active-duty personnel being permanently stationed in Burlington, as well as an expansion of the Guard's presence at the airport. That could mean more fighter jets, more daily flyovers -- and more risk to Burlington residents.
Cochran points out that 52 towns and cities around the state, including Burlington, passed resolutions in March condemning the Iraq War and the deployment of National Guard troops and resources, and calling on the General Assembly to set up a commission to assess the impact of those deployments on Vermont National Guard readiness. To date, no such commission has been formed -- reportedly, it died under lobbying pressure from the Guard's top brass.
None of the Burlington city councilors contacted for this story was willing to comment on this issue until they get more information from VTANG and Take Back the Vermont Guard, and Cochran won't say which councilors have expressed interest in sponsoring the resolution. Council President Ian Carlton (D-Ward 1) says he's asked the city attorney's office to provide information about Burlington's authority regarding the airport and its relationship with VTANG. But Carlton says it's too early for him to have formed an opinion on the issue.
It's not surprising that city councilors are wary of handling this political hot potato, especially since it may turn out that they have little or no legal authority to do anything about it. The Vermont Air National Guard has enjoyed staunch political support from both Democratic and Republican administrations -- Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie's brother, Mike, is currently an Air National Guard general -- and each year VTANG's payroll contributes about $23 million to the local economy. And it's unknown whether such a resolution, even if it passed, would be anything more than another symbolic gesture by the City of Burlington against the Iraq War.
Nevertheless, Cochran says Burlington residents deserve a say in how city-owned property is being used, especially if VTANG's F-16s are being equipped with nuclear weapons. Moreover, if the city council is unwilling to take up the issue itself, Cochran says it could become a ballot issue for Town Meeting Day.
"As long as the City of Burlington allows the Depart-ment of Defense to base a bomber squadron at the airport, we are complicit in the Iraq War," Cochran says. "It's our airport and our responsibility to do everything we can to fight against this war and other crazy, illegal, preemptive, unjust, bloody wars."