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Fighter jets purchase runs out of steam

The evaluation process for new jets is still underway: German Eurofighters at Emmen air base Keystone

With a nationwide vote pending, the debate over the proposed purchase of new fighter jets for the Swiss air force rumbles on, putting security needs under scrutiny.

According to Hans-Ulrich Ernst, a former top defence ministry official, the clamour for more jets is about the Swiss air force serving its own interests rather than being based on any realistic requirements for national security.

It’s a rerun of the controversy of 1993 when the pacifist organisation Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) launched a similar initiative against the proposed purchase of 34 F/A-18 planes to replace the ageing fleet of Tiger jets.

On Monday a parliamentary security committee affirmed its support for the purchase of a new fleet of fighter aircraft. Easier said than done, it emerged last week that Defence Minister Ueli Maurer had to put the order on hold because of lack of available funds. Why does Switzerland need jets in the first place?

Hans-Ulrich Ernst: For me it is a question of risk and not finances. And the single recognisable risk we can anticipate in the next ten to 15 years is to prevent the penetration of a terrorist into a closed air space. It’s about air-policing tasks such as Davos during the WEF [World Economic Forum] or during Euro 08 [European Football Championships 2008]. For that the 33 F/A-18s we already have are ample. What makes you so sure?

H-U.E.: Since September 1 the German air force has been on Nato’s Baltic air-policing mission using four Eurofighters. This air space [over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania] is four times greater than Switzerland’s and lies in a risk region at the Schengen border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Now you could argue that Eurofighters are more modern than the F/A-18 s. But from November 1 the same mission will be carried out by a German squadron of Phantom jets. The Phantom is one generation older than the F/A-18.

Another example is Austria, which has an air space twice the size of Switzerland’s. The Austrian air force manages to fulfil its air-policing tasks with 15 Eurofighters.

In air policing it is not so much about speed and weaponry but about radar. The Swiss air force argues that security could no longer be guaranteed without the new fighter jets.

H-U.E.: That’s a Swiss thing, we are the most insured people in the world. We tend to over insure ourselves three or four times.

You can see this tendency also with the Swiss army, that in comparison with Finland, Sweden and Austria is much too large. Are you calling into question the security estimates of the Swiss air force?

H-U.E: According to the military, it’s not possible to identify intentions when assessing the situation, only purely potential threats.

That leads to an excessive worst-case analysis. Everything that has happened on this planet or that could happen in the future is directly linked to the security of Switzerland.

But that is not sufficient to determine policy; for that plausible scenarios are needed. Unlike the one put forward by the current air force commander, who a year and a half ago justified the purchase of new fighter jets on the grounds of the growing global water shortage. What, in your opinion, is the real motivation for the purchase of new jets?

H-U.E: It’s about careers and about 200 jobs.

If the 30-year-old Tigers, which are technically flawed and have hairline cracks, are not replaced, that means job cuts among the pilots and the ground staff.

I don’t want to undervalue these jobs but that is far from being a justification for national defence. Lots of companies in Switzerland are having to reduce their workforces because of falling demand. The security policy report is to be presented soon. What are your personal recommendations for the Swiss air force?

H-U.E: When buying new fighter jets you have to make the same reflections as you would when buying a new car. If you buy it too soon, you lose out on the usage. The FA/18s have a life span of another ten to 15 years.

By the time the life span of the F/A-18 s comes to an end, putting the purchase of new planes on the agenda again, there may be other models available, such as unmanned aircraft.

Corinne Buchser, (Translated from German by Clare O’Dea)

Switzerland has an ageing fleet of 54 Tiger fighter aircraft plus 33 F/A-18 jets dating from the mid 1990s.

The defence ministry had originally planned to spend SFr2.2 billion to buy 33 new jets.

The order was then reduced to 22 jets but subsequently put on hold.

The House of Representatives’ security committee affirmed its support for the purchase of new fighter aircraft, voting 18-8 to make funds available to replace the fleet of Tiger jets.

The pacifist Group for Switzerland without an Army has collected enough signatures opposing the purchase to force the issue to a national referendum.

The Tigers are out of date after 35 years and have to be replaced now,” John Hüssy, spokesman for the Society of Air Force Officers (AVIA) told Swiss television.

“The threats come from many sides,” Hüssy added. In the World Trade Center case no one knew that a passenger plane could be turned into a bomb. Switzerland needs some means against such dangers. “No-one can foresee how the dangers will manifest themselves.”

“The motivation of the troops also benefits from new material,” he continued. “New jets fire up the pilots in particular. A modern craft allows them to better fulfil their mission.”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR