The Swiss military is shopping for a new fighter aircraft, but political approval is far from certain in the face of a reluctant parliamentary and a likely referendum, Andrew Thompson writes for ISN Security Watch.
It has only been 12 years since the Swiss air force received delivery of the first of 34 F/A-18 fighters purchased from the US. And then the F/A-18 Hornet only became the flagship of the air force after years of fierce political opposition and a drawn-out process that went as far as requiring public approval in a national referendum in June 1993.
Switzerland, with its system of direct democracy is virtually the only country in the world where major arms acquisitions can go to a national vote, and the expensive F/A-18 required exactly such. A similar fate now also looms for whichever fighter the Swiss air force adds to its wishlist next as a desired replacement for the outdated fleet of F-5 Tigers from the 1970s.
After already mothballing and later auctioning off its wing of 1960s French-built Mirage DIII planes between 1999 and 2003, the 54 remaining US-built F-5s are next on the Swiss air force's list of equipment slated for decommissioning, sometime between 2013 and 2015. As a possible replacement candidate for the F-5, the air force initially identified and selected a tier of four aircraft from four manufacturers: the US-built Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, a substantially beefed up version of the already deployed Hornet; the French-built Dassault Rafale; the Swedish-built Saab Gripen; and the consortium-built Eurofighter Typhoon.
Yet because Boeing somewhat surprisingly withdrew after the initial stages of the contest and withheld the Super Hornet from further consideration, the field was left open to the European bidders.
Contacted by ISN Security Watch on the issue, Kaj-Gunnar Sievert, the spokesman for armasuisse, the Swiss government's specialized arms procurement agency charged with handling the F-5 replacement process, declined to provide any specific comment on the Boeing situation. Instead, Sievert simply referred to a rather vaguely formulated press release from 30 April 2008 in which armasuisse stated that it regretted the exit of Boeing and looked forward to continuing its collaboration with the company on the maintenance and upgrade of the existing fleet of F/A-18s.
With the US model out of the picture, the jockeying for position between the remaining European competitors is expected to be all the more intense. All three companies have already stepped up their lobbying efforts in Switzerland.
In July this year, the air force started the detailed technical evaluations phase for all three aircraft, in which the Gripen was the first to fly to the base at Emmen, for various forms of test flights and associated examinations over the course of three weeks. The same sort of regime will also take place for the Rafale in October and for the Typhoon in November.
While the single-engine Gripen is generally considered to be somewhat less expensive than its two twin-engined rivals, the Swiss air force has stated that it would not only look at basic per-unit costs, but also calculate the value of kick-back deals, off-set programs and overall life-cycle costs - which levels the playing field level for all three competitors, even though the Typhoon is considered to have the highest per-unit costs of all three aircraft.
In terms of industrial off-set programs, Saab has already taken an early lead by signing an initial Memorandum of Understanding with Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus, concerning commercial cooperation in the case of a Swiss selection of the Gripen model and the associated use and development of the Pilatus PC-21 aircraft as a possible pilot trainer for the Gripen.
The Gripen also carries the rather distinct, but for the parameters of Swiss defense doctrine important, operational advantage of requiring the shortest landing stretch of all evaluated aircraft - namely 400 meters, compared to 490 for the Rafale and 700 for the Typhoon. This plays into the Swiss system of using Alpine highways or countryside roads as improvised landing stretches, especially in conflict scenarios. As an additional direct result of Swedish defense doctrine requirements, the Gripen also features the ability to be remotely refueled and re-armed within 10 minutes by a mobile team of five men operating out of a single truck.
While Saab is hence out of the gates early in the race to win the official contract designation by next summer, Dassault and Eurofighter will be sure to match it toe-to-toe. Both the Rafale and the Typhoon are likely to garner extra attention and gain extra lobbyist influence when they are tested this fall.
In the case of the Rafale it is also highly likely that the French government will attempt to pull all the necessary strings in its strong bilateral relationship with Switzerland in order to finally grant its "go-it-alone" prestige project an international breakthrough and a first ever order outside of France.
Because the Typhoon has already achieved international sales breakthroughs, the Eurofighter consortium will no doubt also point to the successful example of neighboring Austria, which recently purchased the Typhoon as the backbone of its aerial fleet modernization program.
But regardless of what bidder will win the official contract designation and the final favor of the Swiss air force next year, it will all be a hollow victory if that initial step is not followed by Swiss political approval and official sanctioning of the expensive acquisition.
A parliamentary debate, however, is not expected to take place until 2010, when the Federal Department of Defense will formally propose to add the new fighters to its budget requests.
At present and under the current political make-up, parliamentary approval in Bern seems shaky, as not only the left-wing parties (including the Greens and Social-Democrats, SP) are strongly opposed to any new jets, but also the right-wing People's Party (SVP) - normally the most vocal advocate of the Swiss army and the most traditional backer of Swiss militia values - has threatened to veto and block all new arms expenditures. This threat is believed to be the result of a personal vendetta campaign aimed against Defense Minister and SVP castaway Samuel Schmid as a revenge ploy for his previous break with the party.
Even if the new fighters could win parliamentary approval, a national referendum seems certain to happen anyway, as the left-wing Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) in June started the process of collecting signatures to bring the issue to a national vote.
Says Patrick Angele, the Secretary of the GSoA: "In only three months GSoA has already collected 50,000 of the necessary 100,000 signatures. According to a representative survey by Demoscope, 66 percent of registered voters oppose the purchase of new fighter aircraft. People generally are fed up with re-armament."
It was indeed also the GSoA that had already forced the issue with a national vote on the F/A-18 in the early 1990s, amidst the background of the changed security dynamic immediately following the end of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the GSoA successfully collected over 500,000 signatures against the F/A-18 and at one point in 1992 some opinion polls even measured popular opposition to the new aircraft at 75 percent. Yet just a year later the Swiss government won the national vote in favor of the F/A-18 with a 57 percent margin, also in large part due to its ability to emphasize the economic kick-back incentives to the Swiss economy, as part of the aircraft deal with the US.
At present, public opinion also seems to initially fall on the side of the GSoA. However, the issue is again also only in its first stages of political and public consideration. What the eventual outcome of a national vote on the issue would be at this point can only be a matter of speculation.
Much of it would depend on the general international security environment in the year of the vote and on the public perception of possible threat scenarios, as well as on the perceived economic value of the jets in terms of bringing kick-back benefits and extra jobs to the Swiss industry.
While from a political point of view it is impossible to estimate whether the Swiss air force's shopping list is realistic or if one of the three European-built fighters really does have a feasible future in Switzerland, from a technological point of view, one does have to ponder why the air force at this point is only considering models that all belong to the 4.5 generation of fighter aircraft and that it has not even considered a single fighter that already represents the more advanced and more sophisticated 5.0 generation.
Even if given the circumstance that one model from the trio of Gripen, Rafale or Typhoon were chosen and politically approved by parliament or the public, neither would realistically be delivered to the Swiss air force or be ready for active deployment before 2013 or 2014 at the earliest. By that time, 4.5 generation fighters will already be yesterday's news and 5.0 generation fighters will have also started entering mainstream distribution and deployment in several European countries.
While all 4.5 generation fighters can be continuously upgraded to advanced levels to keep pace, doing so requires selecting more expensive base features and then also purchasing pricey add-on packages. Such costs in the end amount to expense levels that make 4.5 generation aircraft just about as expensive as 5.0 generation fighters.
In case political approval is not forthcoming and the Swiss air force finds itself handcuffed by the powers that be, it will be forced to forego a 4.5 generation aircraft and likely will not be able to politically re-submit plans for the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft until much later. This hypothetical point in time will depend on the specific form of political rejection.
In the case of a parliamentary refusal for the budgetary finance of new jets, things will be simpler and the air force likely will be able to re-submit plans for a 5.0 generation aircraft a few years after that. However, if the rejection takes place in the form of a national referendum, it is likely that any such GSoA measure will feature a 10-year moratorium on the acquisition of any new fighter aircraft in general - in which case the air force most likely will not be able to look for a new fighter until around 2020. By this time the Air Force will not only be forced to look for a generation 5.0 or 5.5 generation replacement for the F-5 Tiger, but also will have already considered other replacement options for the F/A-18 Hornet.