War Planes Over Boise

Can you hear the freedom?



Soaring F-35s could bring a blast of unwanted noise to some ears, or the sound of freedom and economic growth to others. But for some, the flight of an F-35 would just sound like war.

The U.S. Air Force plans to deploy a fleet of F-35 strike fighters in 2013. But just where those jets find a home base remains up in the air. Boise and Mountain Home recently made the short list of places to house and run the mission, launching lobbying efforts steeped in patriotism and economic promises in an effort to seal the Idaho F-35 deal. But local peace activists say some voices have been largely unheard in the F-35 debate that's pitted residents concerned about noise pollution against those who see the dollar signs behind military might.

"I feel that it's been taken for granted that Idahoans support this," said Michael Stanbulis, a member of the Idaho Peace Coalition. "I think that it's a foregone conclusion that this is a positive for Idaho and this is a positive economic development for Idaho."

Rep. Mike Simpson sent 7,000 postcards to constituents urging them to lobby for the jets, donated billboards along major thoroughfares to advertise the state's campaign to win the mission, and the City of Boise lit up its electric signs at the airport to champion Idaho as the future home of the F-35. You can even buy an F-35 lotto ticket from the Idaho Lottery as part of the $20,000 Department of Commerce-led marketing campaign, designed to persuade Idahoans to buy into the F-35.

It's hard to ignore the economic boost a jet squadron could bring Boise and Mountain Home. The bases already contribute about $1 billion to the state's economy. The F-35s could bring in an additional several hundred million dollars to the state and create about 3,000 jobs in the region, said Bibiana Nertney, administrator for marketing and communications for the Idaho Department of Commerce. But Stanbulis and other peace activists question whether military spending is the best way to revive the economy.

"We feel that the increase in military spending now will only mean that there will be additional pressure to raise taxes or cut spending next year or years from now," said Stanbulis, who spoke on behalf of other peace activists. "This money can be better put toward economic activity that focuses on peaceful priorities."

The fighter program has already hit a number of snags, including design flaws, protests and cost overruns since the first F-35 test flights. The Defense Industry Daily reported on the first hint of trouble in 2007, when a malfunction cut power to an F-35A prototype in a test-flight. The New York Times reported that the F-35 program has struggled with escalating manufacturing costs and a production schedule that's two years behind. President Barack Obama recently met some Congressional furry when he dropped plans to develop an F-35 back-up engine as part of an effort to trim about $1 billion from the defense budget.

Each F-35 jet costs around $150 million, a price tag that could go down if F-35 production increases. The costs are part of the proposed $708 billion 2011 defense budget--costs that F-35 proponents say are vital to ensuring national security and military preparedness.

"We're going to have jets ... We need them," said Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for Sen. Jim Risch. "The threats to this country are not going to go away. We need to be prepared for them. So if we're going to have them, why not have them in Idaho and benefit from the jobs?"

Stanbulis and other peace activists question how enduring the F-35 economic boost to Idaho would be and wonder about the long-term viability of the jobs the fleet would create.

"We really believe that military spending is not a good way to base an economy. It not a sustainable way of development," he said.

Military officials say the F-35s could ensure a mission for Mountain Home and Gowen Field for the next four to five decades. Mountain Home could become an operations hub for the jets while Gowen Field could serve as an F-35 training center. Economists note the economic impact around the bases would be similar to those brought on by private and commercial industries--industries that don't always last forever either.

"Nothing's permanent," Idaho Chief Economist Mike Ferguson said. "If you get a military mission, it might last 10 years or 20 years, but you are going to have a secondary economic [benefit]."

That secondary economic growth will come from the workers who fill new jobs and in turn shop at grocery stores, pay rent and frequent local shops, Ferguson said.

F-16s, F-15s and A-10s already fly in and out of Mountain Home Air Force Base and Gowen Field. But they're part of an aging inventory that will eventually need replacing, said Idaho Air National Guard spokesperson Lt. Col. Timothy Marsano. And that's where the F-35 could help out.

"These planes the F-35s will be replacing are 30 years old--older than many of the pilots who fly them," Marsano said.

"Many of the planes we have are wearing out," he said, "Many have exceeded their service life."

About 2,000 F-35s could be put into service across the United States by Air Force, Navy and Marine troops, and even more could supply allied troops, Marsano said. The fifth-generation military technology surpasses current inventories in terms of stealth, reliability and deployment readiness. The F-35 carries a larger internal payload of missiles, increasing its combat capabilities while also reducing its radar footprint. That hidden weaponry makes it harder to pick up on radar, translating into stealthier and safer missions.

Opponents of the F-35 in Southwest Idaho as well as other communities competing for the squadron fear the planes could emit twice as much noise as the F-16--or up to 90 to 105 decibels--a range that could result in hearing loss.

"The [F-35s] could really cause a lot of noise pollution around the airport," said South Boise resident Monty Mericle. "It will take every house south of the Bench in the not suitable zone."

Military officials say a quick ascent, no afterburners and other muffling techniques will keep noise to a minimum. They also say the number of decibels that would permeate surrounding neighborhoods remains unclear.

"I have never heard one," Marsano said.

Only a couple of F-35s exist so the exact models that would fly over Southwest Idaho haven't been tested for audio impact under local conditions. The F-35s are still a prototype.

And that's how peace activists like Stanbulis would like to see them remain.

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