Swiss Air Force finally on call around the clock

An F/A-18 taking off at Payerne military airbase © Keystone/ Valentin Flauraud

The Swiss Air Force will be on standby 24/7 from Thursday, when two F/A-18 fighter jets will be ready to take off, fully armed, within 15 minutes. The pilots spent nearly a month practising night-time aerial manoeuvres in Britain.

This content was published on December 30, 2020 - 11:26

Calls for greater readiness on the part of the air force have existed for years, but they became front-page news in 2014 when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane landed in Geneva at about 6am.

While Italian and French military aircraft were scrambled to accompany the plane, Switzerland couldn’t deploy any jets and intervene because the air force only worked during office hours (8am-12pm and 1.30pm-5pm).

The drama ended without bloodshed but the Swiss became a laughing stock around the world.

The then defence minister, Ueli Maurer, blamed a lack of money for the inability to guarantee round-the-clock protection of Swiss airspace. 

Since the beginning of 2019 the jets have been on standby from 6am to 10pm.

‘Hot missions’

The two armed aircraft will mainly be used for “hot missions” and “live missions”, the Swiss Army said in a statementExternal link on Tuesday. The former are triggered by aircraft that violate Switzerland’s air sovereignty or air traffic regulations. Live missions are random checks of foreign state aircraft, which are only allowed to fly over Switzerland with diplomatic clearance.

Fifteen hot missions and 290 live missions have been carried out so far in 2020, the army said.

In a separate statementExternal link, the army explained that “to be optimally prepared for round-the-clock operational readiness”, night-flying exercises had been carried out between November 24 and December 18 in Yorkshire, northern England, with 40 pilots, 70 ground crew and ten F/A-18 aircraft from the Swiss Air Force.

The Swiss pilots and their colleagues from the Royal Air Force (RAF) had practised flight manoeuvres over the North Sea during darkness, without night flight restrictions.

‘Quick Reaction Alert’

The main location for the permanent air police service, which will be called “Quick Reaction Alert (QRA)”, is the Payerne military airbase in western Switzerland.

The move to 24/7 air coverage required about 100 additional positions and will cost some CHF30 million ($34 million) a year, the army said. This amount is mainly made up of personnel costs, air traffic control costs and operating costs.

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