PARIS --- Swiss voters go to the polls on Sunday (Sept. 27) to decide whether the government can spend 6 billion Swiss francs ($ 6.5 billion) to buy a new combat aircraft to replace both the F-18 Hornet and Northrop F-5E Tiger fighters now in service.
This time around, voters are being asked to approve only the principle of the purchase, and the required expenditure, while the government will decide later which aircraft to buy. This is to avoid a repetition of the 2014 humiliation, when voters threw out a government plan to buy 22 Gripens for about 3 billion Swiss francs after it was revealed that Gripen had come last in the Swiss Air Force’s evaluation.
According to a leaked Swiss Air Force report, Gripen had scored 4.20 points in the main, air policing mission, compared to 6.20 for Eurofighter and 6.71 for Rafale, but Rafale was considered too expensive and the Gripen was selected instead.
Both Rafale and Eurofighter are still in the ongoing competition, known as Air2030, but Gripen was eliminated last year. The other two competitors are the Boeing F-18E Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Under Swiss law, any government initiative must be submitted to a popular vote if opponents can gather 100,000 signatures to back their request. Recent polls indicate that about 60% of voters approve the government plan.
If Swiss voters on Sunday approve the plan, the government will then select and buy one of the four fighters, but the program’s 6-billion-franc budget will be capped, and will only change for inflation-related adjustments. In other words, the number of aircraft will depend on how many will be bought for that amount. Switzerland currently operates 26 Tigers and 30 Hornets.
60% offsets required
The government plan that is submitted to Sunday’s referendum includes guarantees on the offsets Switzerland is demanding for the fighter purchase, and how they will be distributed around the country.
Switzerland is asking for suppliers to commit to offsetting at least 60% of the contract value, (so about 3.6 billion Swiss francs based on the 6 billion franc budget), of which 20% will be direct-program-related business and 40% indirect, but security-related contracts. These offsets will be split between the country’s main three regions: 65% of the total will go to the German-speaking cantons, 30% to the French-speaking cantons and 5% to the single Italian-speaking canton.
The fighter purchase is being coordinated with the parallel purchase of a new ground-based air-defense system to replace the obsolete Rapier surface-to air missiles that are being retired, but the two are managed separately. The Raytheon Patriot and the Eurosam SAMP/T are competing for this contract, which is not subject to a referendum.
Competition is well advanced
The Air2030 fighter evaluation and acquisition process is well advanced. After an initial call for tenders in July 2018, a series of in-flight evaluations of the four competing aircraft were carried out in Switzerland from April to June 2019.
A second call for tenders was issued in late 2019, asking companies to detail their offers, provide prices for 36 to 40 aircraft, and detail their offset commitments. The offers were presented to Switzerland by their national governments, and not directly by the manufacturers.
Best and Final Offers were filed in August, and are now being evaluated by armasuisse, the Swiss defense procurement agency, which is to present its final report with a recommendation to Defense Minister Viola Amherd. She, in turn, will make a recommendation to the Federal Council, which will make the final decision, which will be submitted to Parliament for approval.
The selection of the winning fighter and the winning GBAD is expected during the first quarter of 2021, and the Federal Council will then have to submit the detailed acquisition project to Parliament, probably in 2022.
It is anticipated that initial deliveries will take place around 2025, and be completed around 2030.