Swiss Fighter Program Clears Referendum Hurdle

 - September 29, 2020, 4:22 AM
Switzerland is to choose a new fighter next year to replace its F/A-18A/B Hornets, which are due to leave service by 2030. (Photo: VBS/DPPS)

Switzerland’s new fighter acquisition program received the green light from Swiss voters in a referendum conducted on September 27. This clears the way for Armasuisse—the country's federal office for procurement—to continue its evaluation of the four competing aircraft, leading to a type selection in 2021.

Despite polls forecasting a comfortable “Yes” result, the new fighter proposal scraped in with just 50.14 percent of the national vote. The winning margin equated to fewer than 9,000 votes from a total of around 3.2 million, with a turn-out of 59.4 percent. Opposition to buying a new fighter was strongest in the French-speaking cantons in the West of Switzerland and also in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.

The new fighter program is part of the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport’s Air 2030 program, and is intended to replace the Swiss air force’s aging F/A-18 Hornet fighters, and remaining Northrop F-5E/Fs—already considered obsolete in the air defense role—by 2030. The program also includes an extended-range ground-based air defense element, the Bodluv GR-system, that is being competed between the Eurosam SAMP/T and Raytheon Patriot.

The four competing fighters—Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed Martin F-35A—each underwent a common set of flying evaluations in Switzerland in mid-2019. A second request for proposal was issued in January 2020, and in May Armasuisse extended the deadline for responses from August to November in the light of difficulties imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A selection of both the fighter and Bodluv-GR is expected in the second quarter of 2021, with a final detailed proposal being presented to the federal parliament in 2022. A sum of CHF6 billion ($6.5 billion) is allocated to the fighter acquisition, with CHF2 billion for the missile defense element. An industrial offset of at least 60 percent is specified, with work to be shared amongst the different language regions. Deliveries are due to begin in 2025 and be complete in time to meet the Hornet’s planned out-of-service date of 2030.

Switzerland routinely holds nationwide votes to pass major laws, up to four times a year. A number of proposals are presented at each referendum, to be voted on separately. In May 2014 a proposal to buy 22 Saab Gripen Es to replace Northrop F-5E/Fs was narrowly voted down at a referendum when it gained only 48 percent support, effectively delaying Switzerland’s attempts to modernize its fighter forces for a few years.

This time the government has chosen a different path by seeking public approval for a new fighter in general before making any selection. Saab had originally pitched the Gripen E/F for the revived procurement effort but withdrew from the flight evaluations in June 2019 after being informed that only aircraft that were operationally ready at the time were being considered.

UPDATE: On September 30 the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale to Switzerland of the relevant Air 2030 bidders. The approvals covered up to 40 F-35As, and up to 36 F/A-18Es and four F/A-18Fs, including weapons packages. A potential sale of up to five Patriot Configuration 3+ fire units with 70 GEM-T missiles was also approved.