On April 11, a two-seat Eurofighter Typhoon lifted off from Payerne air base in Switzerland as the country’s armasuisse defense procurement agency starts a new round of evaluation flights of the five contenders for the country’s Neues Kampfflugzeug (NKF, new fighter) requirement. NKF is part of the wider Air 2030 program to upgrade Switzerland’s air defense capability, and also includes procurement of new ground-based defenses under the Bodluv requirement.
NKF is intended to replace the Swiss air force’s Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs and Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets. In a previous competition the Saab Gripen E was selected to replace the F-5, but the Swiss public rejected the purchase of a new fighter in a referendum in 2014. Since then the need for a new fighter has grown more acute as the existing force ages. The renewed effort has drawn bids from Airbus (Eurofighter Typhoon), Boeing (F/A-18E/F Super Hornet), Dassault (Rafale), Lockheed Martin (F-35A), and Saab (Gripen E).
Although armasuisse personnel have been undertaking evaluations of the proposals at the OEMs’ own facilities, including the use of simulators, an important element is the evaluation of each aircraft in Switzerland. Each competitor is being evaluated in eight planned sorties, including one at night, over a two-week period. The mission scenarios and parameters will be the same for each competitor.
“This is the only way to ensure that all candidates have the same test conditions,” commented Bernhard Berset, armasuisse’s sub-project leader for NKF testing, in an interview published on the website of the DDPS (Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport). “For example, this allows for the same target presentation or use of the sensors in the same environment. It also ensures that the new systems will work in harmony with existing systems and infrastructures. All candidates must complete the same test program.”
This phase of the evaluation will conclude at the end of June. Candidates are being tested in alphabetical sequence, with Airbus assigned the weeks April 8-21, followed by Boeing (April 22 to May 5), Dassault (May 13-26), Lockheed Martin (June 3-16) and Saab (June 17-30). Swiss pilots will take part in sorties where a two-seater is available. “For the candidates with two-seat fighter jets, it is planned that two test pilots of the [Swiss] Air Force and two test pilots of the armasuisse fly with a test pilot of the manufacturer," explained Berset. “For manufacturers with single-seat fighters, this task is taken over by the manufacturer's pilots.”
As the first to deploy for the trials, Airbus is using two Typhoons—one single-seater and a two-seater—from the RAF’s No. 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron for the evaluation, as they represent arguably the most capable configuration currently available. Ground support equipment was delivered to Payerne by an Airbus A400M of the German air force.
Lockheed Martin is expected to use F-35As from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah, and may send as many as four to Europe. Participation in the trials is likely to be the first international foray for Saab’s single-seat Gripen E. Swiss pilots flew the two-seat Gripen Demo forerunner in Sweden during the earlier fighter competition.