To guarantee the security of Switzerland and its people, the military must continue to be able to monitor, protect and defend its airspace in the event of an attack. As a neutral state, Switzerland wants to depend as little as possible on third countries or organizations. This independence, and therefore also neutrality, implies that the Air Force combat aircraft fleet have a certain size and availability in order to be able to maintain airspace protection over the long term, in any situation and with own assets.
The aviation industry must meet high safety requirements. Before being able to fly for the first time in Swiss airspace, a combat aircraft is checked and certified by armasuisse. It is then a question of respecting the maintenance concepts in force within the framework of daily operations in order to reach the maximum length of use of the aircraft. However, unforeseen events can lead to a rapid decline in fleet availability. Thus, the discovery of cracks led the DDPS to order certain restrictions on the use of the F/A-18 fleet as precautionary safety measures, as in peacetime the DDPS obeys the principle of not taking unnecessary risks.
The Swiss F / A-18 fleet
The F / A-18s, which were introduced into the Swiss Air Force in 1997, are still performing. To date, various projects have been carried out to maintain their performance, with the introduction of a data transmission system (Datalink), a new radar warning system, new display screens in the cockpit or a helmet-mounted sight, for example. But the F / A-18 is less and less able to compete with modern fighter aircraft because it is not equipped with modern radars or self-protection systems, and its on-board computer does not have the necessary capacity.
Parliament in 2017 approved to extend until 2030 the service life of the F/A-18 in order to avoid a capability gap in our air defense before the acquisition of a new fighter. This program to maintain the operational capability of the F / A-18s influences the management and availability of the fleet.
Extreme physical forces
Acceleration, vibration, temperature changes: combat aircraft are subject to significant load factors and physical constraints. The flight envelope of the F/A-18 is clearly defined and respected by the Swiss pilots. The maneuvers inherent in visual air combat use up aircraft more than those performed during an air police mission. But pilots must master all types of engagements and the training is done according to the “train as you fight” principle. In order to ensure an extension of the service life of the F/A‑18 until 2030, the Air Force has limited the number of missions and maneuvers involving high load factors. And some training sequences are now taking place on a simulator.
Intense maintenance work
The F/A‑18 aircraft of the Swiss Air Force require regular maintenance, provided daily by ground crews at the Air Bases of Payerne, Emmen and Meiringen. These specialists check the various electronic, electrical and hydraulic systems, replace filters and lubricate components as needed.
In addition to routine checks before and after a flight, F/A-18s are also subject to scheduled inspections after 50, 100, 200, 300 and 600 hours of flight. Major maintenance services after 300 and 600 flight hours require extensive disassembly of the aircraft in order to control all of the systems, check certain components and analyze the structure of the fighter aircraft. Maintenance takes a long time and despite the teamwork, part of the fleet is always undergoing maintenance.
Valuable replacement equipment
The availability of spare parts is subject to continuous planning, based on our own experiences and the exchange of experiences with other countries. Certain components such as control surfaces are relatively easy to replace if the necessary parts are available from stock. Other elements such as the main sections of the wings and the fuselage, on the other hand, constitute the structure of the aircraft and their replacement is not generally planned by the aircraft manufacturers.
This type of intervention therefore requires significant technical and financial resources and can only be carried out by qualified specialists. Thus, from the acquisition of parts to the completion of the work, such an intervention can last between one and several years.