Defence ministry favours changes to largest Swiss military purchase

A Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet takes off during a test and evaluation day at a Swiss Army airbase on Tuesday. © Keystone/ Valentin Flauraud

Switzerland’s defence ministry has reviewed its ambitious fighter jet and air defence procurement strategy in a bid to reduce the risk of a negative referendum outcome.

This content was published on May 2, 2019 - 11:44

Under its Air2030 programmeExternal link, Switzerland wants to buy new combat aircraft and ground-based defences in a programme valued at CHF8 billion ($8.1 billion). It is the biggest arms procurement programme in modern Swiss history.

On Thursday, Defence Minister Viola Amherd unveiled the results of three studies tackling contentious aspects of the defence procurement package.

The Swiss government last year opted for a planning order that could be contested by referendum for the combined purchase of new fighter jets and long-range ground-to-air defences.

Former astronaut and military pilot Claude Nicollier, who was asked to advise the government, recommends separating the two contracts and putting only the fighter jet acquisition up for referendum. A referendum on the acquisition of new Gripen fighter jets was rejected by voters in 2014.

Another aspect of the contract that experts recommend changing is compensation requirements. Currently, foreign companies which win the bids must compensate 100% of the value of the contracts by doing equivalent business in Switzerland.

In his report on the subject, former Federal Audit Director Kurt Grüter was skeptical about the clause. He recommended that it would be more realistic to set direct compensatory business at 20% and indirect ones for the technology and the security industry at 40%. He warned that the example of Gripen fighter jets bid shows that direct compensation is difficult to achieve in practice.

Ageing fleet

The new fighter jets would replace the current Northrop F-5 Tigers and F/A-18s which are scheduled to be retired in the 2020s. Armasuisse, the Federal Office for Defence Procurement, said it was asking the firms to submit pricing for 30 or 40 planes, including logistics and guided missiles, as well as an assessment of the number of aircraft necessary to fulfil the Swiss Air Force's needs.

The manufacturers had until January 2019 to submit an offer, after which the planes will undergo tests and a second tender round will be opened, with the plan to finish the assessment by the end of 2020.

It is necessary to aim for the acquisition of about forty aircraft to gradually phase out and replace the existing fleet, according to Nicollier.

The ground-to-air defence system could cover approximately 15,000 km2 in the densely populated Swiss plateau. The balance between fighter aircraft and ground-to-air defence would thus be ensured.

Experts estimate such a solution would cost CHF9 billion, but the Federal Council has set a lower ceiling of CHF8 billion.

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