The crash of an F-35 is not a laughing matter

Tone Madison, BY TOM BOSWELL ● POLITICS ● OCTOBER 17, 2023
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A debacle in South Carolina underscores the folly of bringing the jets to Madison.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, built by Lockheed Martin takes off for its first flight to test the aircraft’s initial capability at Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. Photo from Wikimedia.

The national media has been awash with news reports and commentary since an F-35 Lightning II fighter jet crashed in South Carolina on September 17. The Marine pilot ejected from the jet, while the plane continued alone on its errant training mission for another 60 miles. The “state-of-the-art” Marine version F-35 costs $135.8 million, according to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

When the military resorted to Facebook to ask the public to help find the jet, it inspired a lot of jokes, particularly after a local Republican congresswoman asked: “How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” The plane was eventually discovered in a rural portion of a metro area that is home to more than half a million people.

One news source called it a “tragicomedy,” but it could have been more tragic than comedy, and could be replayed in the Madison area.

Back in January of 2020, the Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition hosted a Madison visit from Pierre Sprey. Sprey, since deceased, was a defense analyst who helped design both the F-16 fighter jet and the A-10 ground attack jet, previous tenants of the Air National Guard base at Truax Field. He was also a fierce critic of the F-35.

Sprey spoke to a large crowd at the First Unitarian Society and warned those in attendance of the dangers inherent in stationing the F-35 in a city like Madison. He explained that the F-35 is not an aluminum plane like its predecessors at the Truax airbase. Rather, it’s made of composite materials, including carbon fibers and an advanced form of epoxy.

“The plane structure burns in addition to the fuel and when that plastic burns it’s incredibly toxic,” Sprey said. “It is corrosive to lungs. It lets out all kinds of carcinogens … when you add to that the stealth. ”I cannot tell you the number of cases of people poisoned by stealth chemicals, even when they haven’t been burned. And when it burns, of course, the results are far worse.

“The crash of an F-35 in a densely populated urban area like Madison would be a disaster way beyond a terrorist chemical attack,”Sprey said. “If you think of a couple of ISIS terrorists coming here with a cylinder of chlorine and letting it loose somewhere … that would be trivial compared to what a burning of an F-35 can do … thousands of people can be exposed to very, very damaging, lung-corroding, heavy, carcinogen fumes.

“People don’t even know how to put out the fire,” he added. “If such a disaster happened, your local fire departments would have no idea what to do. First of all, they don’t even know what’s necessary to put out an ordinary plastic airplane fire, much less a stealth fire. Much less how to deal with the victims. This would be a real, real catastrophe.”

When the F-35 crashed in South Carolina, the same Republican legislator quoted above, Nancy Mace, asked: “How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to, what, find a jet and turn it in?” A CNN analyst suggested that a more important question to ask was: “How in the heck can you spend so much money on a plane that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?”

Pierre Sprey may have answered that question years ago when he asserted that “the real mission of the F-35 is to send money to contractors.”

The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in human history. When responding to her constituents who question her unswerving support of the program, Senator Tammy Baldwin justifies it as a local economic development project. With each F-35A of an eventual squadron of 20 costing $110.3 million and $44,000 per hour to fly (when it can fly), and the total project life cycle likely to cost upwards of $1.7 trillion, another question that occurs to me is: whom does Baldwin thinks is paying for this project if not every taxpayer? The Foxconn fiasco pales in comparison.

Dan Grazier, a former Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, is probably the foremost expert on the F-35 project and currently works for the Center for Defense Information at POGO. When the jet went down in South Carolina, Grazier told CNN: “Every F-35 built until now is nothing more than a very expensive prototype. All of them will have to go through an expensive retrograde process in the future.”

That is what Baldwin has staked her political career on: a very expensive prototype.

When Grazier testified before the Vermont State Senate in 2019, prior to F-35s being stationed near Burlington, he said: “I know officials have been claiming that bringing the F-35 to Vermont is important for jobs and the economy. First off, if that’s the best argument to muster about a weapons system, then you can be sure the program has little military value. There are far better ways to stimulate the economy than by buying and maintaining weapons.”

Baldwin’s other response to her constituents is that the F-35s will make us more “secure.” Besides the very real possibility of a crash or other “mishap” where the fighter jets are stationed, Grazier warned the Vermont legislators about dangers associated with a plane designed to carry nuclear weapons. “Just because Vermont’s F-35s will eventually be wired for nuclear bombs doesn’t necessarily mean that kind of weapon will be stored here,” he said, but added that this doesn’t eliminate the risks. “It is only prudent to target nuclear assets in the unthinkable event of a nuclear war. That would include any and all F-35 bases, to include Burlington.” Now Madison will be added to the target list, since the city is now hosting eight of an expected 20 planes that compose a squadron.

Grazier told the legislators that the F-35s bomb bay was designed specifically to house the B61 mod 12, “which has been described as the world’s most dangerous nuclear weapon.” The bomb is a variable yield weapon which can be used at a maximum yield of 50 kilotons, (three times the power of the Hiroshima bomb), or dialed down to 0.3 kiloton. “What makes this dangerous is the small yield size, what some people call a tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon,” he explained.

Grazier went on to sketch a scenario in which the president might deploy F-35s from the Burlington Guard base to a particular world trouble spot and use the so-called “little nuclear bomb” to send a message. “The trouble with this is that other countries do not distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons,” he said. “To them, a nuke is a nuke. If they happen to be allied with the country targeted by our tactical nuclear weapons, the chances of escalation into a strategic nuclear exchange become very great.”

When I talked on the phone with Grazier in May of 2021, what struck me was not just all the glaring faults he found in the F-35 project, but his skepticism of the very concept of using any plane to carry a nuclear payload. In the event of a nuclear confrontation, he said, the war would be over before any jets had left the ground. Just another example of how bogus Baldwin’s contention is that the F-35’s will make us safe.

After the South Carolina crash, MSNBC produced a scathing editorial about all the problems with the F-35 program, calling the plane “the greatest tangible metaphor for U.S. military spending ever to exist.” It noted that the Carolina crash was the ninth since the plane commenced operation and that it had been grounded multiple times, including for being “allergic to its namesake” (lightning).

MSNBC analyst Hayes Brown ended the editorial with this comment: “In many, many ways, the F-35 vanishing over South Carolina is hilarious … But when you consider what it says about how the people in power chose to spend taxpayer money—well, that makes me want to trigger their ejection seats.”

Here in Madison we might ask: What does this say about our local leadership and how the people in power—our Senator and Governor—choose to spend our common wealth? Baldwin’s justification for backing the F-35 is lame, at best. Governor Tony Evers has been quiet as a church mouse on the issue, abdicating his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Wisconsin National Guard.

God forbid there should ever be a local F-35 crash or a nuclear confrontation. But, if there were, citizens would be justified in “triggering the ejection seats” of the public leaders who have failed us.