Farnborough Air Show

Euro-jets vie for Swiss fighter order

 - July 7, 2008, 6:27 AM

Switzerland is in the market for about 20 new fighters to progressively replace its remaining F-5 fleet. In a preliminary evaluation, the defense ministry pre-
selected four types: the Boeing F/A-18 E/F, France’s Dassault Rafale, the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon and the Swedish JAS Gripen. While all the aircraft serve as multi-role fighters and offer both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, the Swiss primarily require air-to-air fire power.

Switzerland invited the four manufacturers to submit offers by mid-2008, but Boeing dropped out of the competition in March, after concluding that its F/A-18 E model is almost certainly too expensive and overly capable for the limited Swiss requirements. The Swiss air force already has the earlier F/A-18 C and D jets in its inventory and is working with the manufacturer on their midlife upgrade, but the F/A-18 E is a heavier and more sophisticated aircraft than the C version.

The ministry of defense now plans to evaluate the three remaining types in flight during the second half of 2008, starting on July 28 with the Gripen, followed by the Rafale and Eurofighter. For each option, single- and two-seat versions will undergo evaluation. A final decision should occur by 2010, when approximately $2.1 billion gets allocated to the defense budget for the purpose.

In a 2007 report to parliament, the country’s minister of defense reminded legislators that a major onslaught of an enemy power–as was feared in the Soviet era–no longer appears likely. Since Switzerland is surrounded by friendly powers–Germany, France, Italy, Austria and tiny Lichtenstein–the main duties of the air force center on aerial police tasks and reconnaissance, along with the additional charge of maintaining air combat competence. Police tasks encompass patrol flights to prevent unidentified aircraft from penetrating into the national airspace and to counter any aerial threats, including terrorist actions.

The 33 Swiss F/A-18s (26 single-seat C versions and 8 D two-seaters) are well suited to reconnaissance but there are not enough of them to handle all the envisioned tasks. The F-5s, armed with only two Sidewinder missiles and a 20-mm gun, are outdated and lack all-weather and night capability. Switzerland had procured 72 F-5s in 1975 and another batch of 38 in 1981. To date, it has phased out 56 of those aircraft, including seven lost in accidents, and it plans to decommission the remaining 54 by 2015.

An additional batch of 20 all-weather fighters will enable the Swiss air force to keep four patrol aircraft airborne permanently in times of increased alert. The air force relinquished much its air-to-ground capability when in the 1990s it phased out its Hawker Hunters, reconverted as strike aircraft. Today, the guns on its aircraft represent limited air-to-ground capacity. The Swiss have not acquired any updated air-to-ground ordnance for its F/A-18s, but want to keep open the option to revive air strike capability in case of a revised threat assessment.

Switzerland’s F/A-18s normally carry four AMRAAM and two Sidewinder missiles, plus a 20-mm Gatling gun, and similar arms will most likely appear on the new aircraft. Analysts give French Mica and Magic missiles offered with the Rafale little chance of success in Switzerland, but Dassault’s fighter can also carry AMRAAMs and ASRAAMs.
The Swedish JAS Gripen is the lightest of the three contenders and probably will carry the lowest unit cost. It would likely meet all Swiss requirements, despite its limited payload because of its max takeoff weight of almost 31,000 pounds. With more than 200 units sold, the Gripen brings more operational experience than the other two contenders for the time being and has achieved export sales in the Czech Republic, Hungary and South Africa.

The heavier French Rafale might have an edge in Switzerland because Dassault participates in several joint programs with the Swiss defense group Ruag, including subcontracts for the Neuron technology demonstrator unmanned aerial vehicle and an Alphajet upgrade program. Also, the Mirage III, phased out early this decade, has an excellent service record with the Swiss air force. Given the Rafale has so far enjoyed no confirmed export success, Dassault should be eager to score in Switzerland.

The Typhoon, in the same weight class as the Rafale, has the largest customer base as the coming standard fighter of the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. It also has achieved several export sales, and the development potential inherent to a large fleet could make it particularly attractive to Switzerland. The Swiss industry maintains ties with Eurofighter partner EADS through Airbus subcontracting.

The Swiss government has indicated that it will negotiate industrial compensation orders. They might not prove pivotal, since Switzerland enjoys a positive trade balance, but the Swiss have in the past always sought subcontracts for the country’s aerospace companies, which include Ruag, Pilatus and a number of smaller companies. Since the evaluation team will take into account factors other than fire power, such as compatibility with existing infrastructure, availability and even noise and emissions, competition for the Swiss order seems wide open at this time.