PARIS --- Irrespectively of which combat aircraft wins Switzerland’s ongoing fighter competition, the fundamental decision will be whether the Swiss government wants to make itself dependent on Europe of on the United States for its security.
Two of the four aircraft left in the competition after Saab pulled out last year are European (Dassault Rafale and Airbus Eurofighter) and two are American (Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35A.)
Separately, the ‘Group for a Switzerland without an army’ (GsoA), the Greens and the SP yesterday launched the referendum against the air-defense modernization program, Swiss SRT radio reported Jan. 8, claiming that “Combat aircraft are useless in connection with cyber war, terrorism or cruise missiles.” They have until April 9, 2020 to collect the necessary 50,000 signatures to force a popular vote.
GsoA secretary Lewin Lempert also spoke of “wasting money”. With maintenance and operation, the combat aircraft cost not CHF 6 billion but CHF 24 billion, SRT reported. This money would then be missing in the fight against climate change or in health care. "The referendum is therefore mandatory," said Lempert.
Whichever models meet the requirements, Switzerland’s real choice will be whether it wants to make itself dependent on Europe or the USA in terms of security, according to former Swiss Ambassador Marcel Stutz.
Europe or the United States?
That is a crucial question, Stutz told Swiss SRF radio yesterday. “In terms of foreign policy, we are tying ourselves to a country or a bloc for thirty years. I cannot imagine that citizens will allow this discussion to be avoided.”
The foreign policy dimension is already missing in the report of the Defense Department DDPS on the new combat aircraft, says Stutz. "There are only two or three pages where there are strategic considerations about who you want to do something with, and where the partners are in a conflict that will hopefully never occur."
The retired ambassador has a clear opinion when it comes to US or European technology. "In the scenario of a European conflict, I would be very interested in owning war equipment that my immediate neighbors also have," former Swiss Ambassador Marcel Stutz told Swiss SRF radio yesterday.
Critics note that the Swiss government decided to first obtain popular backing of the entire Air2030 air-defense modernization program, and decide the winning fighter only later, so as to avoid the losing strategy that blocked a previous attempt to buy new fighters. At the time, Switzerland first chose the winner and then called for a popular vote to approve it. It lost, however, when opponents of any fighter buy were supported by the backers of the losing competitors.
Who controls the data?
Socialist Party (SP) security politician Priska Seiler-Graf has a similar opinion. She points to another point, namely who controls the data of the warplanes: "With American types - especially with the F-35 - we would be completely dependent on the United States for information technology." She does not want that.
While the United States keep most of its fighter jet data for itself, it is less so in European countries, says Seiler-Graf. This is an important point if Switzerland wants to remain as independent as possible in terms of security policy.
When asked, the Swiss Ministry of Defence says that the evaluation only takes technical aspects into account, and this also include the question of technological dependence. Political questions are a matter for the Federal Council, which can also include foreign, economic or European policy aspects.
What is new, however, is that the DDPS and the Federal Council alone should only make these political considerations, and only after the vote. When purchasing the Gripen six years ago, however, the procurement process was monitored by a sub-committee of the Parliament.
That sub-committee was chaired by SVP security politician Thomas Hurter: "The idea behind it was that the political questions came up for discussion at an early stage." The sub-committee was able to ensure that the relevant contracts of the providers had been drawn up well.
Avoiding divisions before the vote
Even though parliamentary cooperation was helpful at the time, Hurter believes that it is no longer necessary today. It is important to ensure the renewal of Switzerland’s air defense, and he does not want to commit himself at this time: Whether the technology comes from the USA or Europe, "both regions meet the requirements."
Several other members of the Security Committee are also refraining from commenting publicly on this issue, and are following the defence ministry’s strategy of not having a debate on the choice of aircraft until after the vote.
They want to prevent supporters of the fighter acquisition from being split, as happened when a popular vote blocked the Gripen acquisition in 2014 after supporters of the different fighters in the running opposed each other as much as the other opponents of the fighter buy.