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Ben Cohen: from ice cream man to Pentagon budget warrior

Ben Cohen, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, has opposed the F-35 jet, which may be based in Vermont near Burlington.

Associated Press photos/File

Ben Cohen (right), cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, has opposed the F-35 jet, which may be based in Vermont near Burlington.

WASHINGTON — The image delivered this summer via Facebook and e-mail depicted the Air Force’s menacing F-35 fighter-bomber approaching at high speed, with the words, “Hey Ice Cream Man . . . The Jets are coming.”

The rhetorical assault by a group of F-35 boosters pleased the ice cream man in question, Ben Cohen, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s.

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“I consider it a badge of honor,” said the 62-year-old Vermont confection mogul.

Cohen, an entrepreneur who helped build a global brand with flavors such as Cherry Garcia before selling his company to Dutch conglomerate Unilever for $326 million, has embarked on a unique undertaking in the world of philanthropic entrepreneurs: combatting what he considers bloated, wasteful Pentagon weapons programs.

Among his targets is the F-35 joint strike fighter — a maligned, $857 billion project — and the tentative decision by the military to base a squadron of the advanced jets at a Vermont Air National Guard base near Burlington.

Cohen recently made a contribution to the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, to investigate details of the F-35 procurement process, according to people with knowledge of the donation. Cohen estimates he has contributed $1 million to various contract-monitoring efforts since selling his company in 2000 and plans to keep spending.

He also recently financed a University of Massachusetts study comparing the economic impact of defense spending with public investments in education and other social programs. Cohen said his goal is raising questions about Pentagon assertions that big-ticket weapon systems are the key to making the nation safer.

‘It just doesn’t make sense to spend more money on things that are less needed, and spend less money on things that are more needed.’

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“It is a lie,” he said in a recent interview. “The Pentagon budget gets away with being at an absurdly high level because politicians are deathly afraid of being called weak on defense, and the public doesn’t really understand what is necessary for defense.”

In Vermont, taking on the F-35 also means taking on Senator Bernie Sanders and the state’s Democratic establishment, including Senator Patrick Leahy and Governor Peter Shumlin — all supporters of bringing the jets to the base. Cohen’s fight may come to a head soon with a final decision by the Air Force to send F-35s to Vermont, despite the objection of local officials and residents. According to a draft copy of the so-called record of the decision shared with the Globe, the Air Force is poised to select the Burlington airport as the most suitable site.

Cohen said he will help organize a legal challenge if, as expected, the Air Force takes that step, contending that the aircraft is unproven, potentially dangerous to the local population, and that the Air Force’s selection process was flawed.

But he sees the fight over the F-35 as part of a larger struggle to shift defense spending away from what he considers a Cold War mentality to the more pressing threats of the 21st century, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

“From a business perspective,” Cohen says, “it just doesn’t make sense to spend more money on things that are less needed, and spend less money on things that are more needed.”

The F-35, which is designed to be built in several versions for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, has been plagued by problems. The Pentagon says it is seven years behind schedule, will cost billions more than predicted, and is beset with a myriad of technical problems — from its ability to navigate in bad weather, to its combat software, and even the pilot’s high-tech helmet.

Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor on the F-35, has declined to engage publicly in the Air Force selection process for Air National Guard bases. It said the aircraft is performing well in tests. Last month it said the aircraft had achieved 10,000 flight hours.

“The new milestone effectively doubles the safe flight operations of the F-35 in a year,” the company said.

As for supporters in Vermont, they say that the aircraft will bring new revenue to the Air Guard base in South Burlington and ensure that the state’s storied “Green Mountain Boys” will continue to play a prominent role in the nation’s defense for years to come.

At a recent press conference in Burlington, Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and a leading supporter of bringing the planes to Vermont, said that without the new planes the very existence of the state’s Air National Guard could be imperiled.

“You can’t say ‘I’m for the Guard but I’m not for the plane,’ ” Cioffi said. “An Air Guard without a fighter aircraft is not a fighter division, so without this aircraft, without the F-35, then the mission drastically changes for the Vermont Air Guard.”

To the handful of nonprofit watchdogs in Washington that seek to expose wasteful defense spending, Cohen is a godsend for a community that freely admits it doesn’t have many boosters from the business world — even if, in this case, it is a businessman who built his brand on a tie-dyed image in a liberal state.

“That is an incredibly important constituency that is not heard in Washington,’’ Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said of the wider business community. “Defense contractors speak for American business in Washington and that is not an accurate depiction of the economy.”

Cohen first became involved in policy issues after he sold Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 and used some of the proceeds to start a group called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities.

The idea was to enlist like-minded executives to “use their credibility as people who deal with budgets and large sums of money to weigh in on national budget priorities,” he said.

Cohen said he now hopes to highlight how defense firms and their allies shrewdly build the necessary political support for high-priced weapon systems as a way to inoculate them against future budget cuts. He believes the expected decision to base the F-35 in Vermont, a liberal state, is part of that strategy.

“We do political engineering once we develop a new weapon system to make sure it never gets killed,” Cohen said. “How to fight it is the big question.”

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, a former Air Force officer and Pentagon weapons development expert, believes that Cohen has selected the right target.

“The F-35 is one of the most exquisite examples of political engineering,” Spinney says. “It is not only built all over America but all over the world. That is no accident. That is done deliberately. Now we’re stuck with it and no one knows what to do.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington nonprofit group known as POGO, had received a significant donation from Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen to help investigate Pentagon procurement issues — and that the group would not disclose the amount. The Globe failed to make a specific and clear request to learn the amount; if it had, it would have learned that Cohen gave POGO $5,000 in July.

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