The Swiss government plans to spend CHF8 billion ($8 billion) on new fighter jets and missile defences. But it is not clear whether voters will be able to have the final say on the biggest arms procurement programme in modern Swiss history.
The Federal Council on Wednesday tasked the defence ministry with looking at potential aircraft, wanting it to begin talks with Airbus, Boeing, Dassault, Lockheed Martin and Saab.
For these purchases and further investments, the government said it planned to raise the army’s annual budget, currently around CHF5 billion, by 1.4%.
The announcement prompted mixed reaction among the main parties.
The political right has expressed doubts whether the planned funds will be sufficient to buy 40 fighter jets to replace the F/A-18 fleet of the Swiss Armed Forces.
The left criticised the government project as "unrealistic" and "oversized", while centrist groups were cautiously optimistic.
The pacifist Switzerland Without an Army group urged the government to put the project to a nationwide vote, saying it would oppose the purchase.
The government still has to decide on the procedure.
The timetable foresees the decision on the type of jet being taken in 2020. Two years later, a procurement credit would be submitted to parliament. The jets would then be delivered in 2025 and the fleet ready for action in 2030.
In order that no holes appear in the country’s air defences, the current 30 F/A-18 fighter jets will remain in operation for longer than originally planned. The armament programme for 2017 includes some CHF500 million for technical upgrades.
As well as for defence, neutral Switzerland uses fighter jets to police the skies during events such as the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.
Swiss Defence Minister Guy Parmelin said on Wednesday he saw no alternative to buying new jets and missile defences. This was the only way Swiss airspace could be protected and defence guaranteed, he said.
While he didn’t expect Switzerland to be attacked next year, this was a long-term investment, he added.
“Now is not the time to discuss the number of planes, but to analyse what permutation of jets and anti-aircraft missiles is the best,” Parmelin said.
Who will make the new jets? The government is eyeing five models. In addition to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, three planes are in the mix that featured in a previous failed attempt to buy new jets: Saab’s Gripen, Airbus’s Eurofighter and Dassault’s Rafale.
In May 2014, Swiss voters rejected a CHF3.1 billion order for Gripen fighter jets. The 22-plane contract was opposed by 53.4% of voters.
Gripen opponents had argued that the planes would cost CHF10 billion over their lifetime, money that could be deployed elsewhere. The fighter plane’s supporters said neutral Switzerland needed the Gripen to defend its airspace. That claim was undermined in February 2014 with the forced landing of an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise plane in Geneva. The hijacked plane had to be escorted by French and Italian jets as the Swiss air force didn’t operate outside business hours.
swissinfo.ch and agencies; ts/ug