Switzerland’s government on Wednesday backed the purchase of 36 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jets to replace its fleet and five Patriot air defense units from fellow US manufacturer Raytheon.
Switzerland’s current air defense set-up will reach the end of its service life in 2030 and the search for a replacement fleet has been long and hotly contested.
“The Federal Council is confident that these two systems are the most suitable for protecting the Swiss population from air threats in the future,” the government said in a statement.
The decision will now be put to the Swiss parliament — and also risks being challenged at the ballot box, with left-wingers and anti-militarists seeking to trigger a public vote.
The F-35A combat aircraft is already used by the US Air Force and several European countries. It was chosen ahead of the Airbus Eurofighter; the F/A-18 Super Hornet by Boeing; and French firm Dassault’s Rafale.
For the ground-based air defense (GBAD) system, Patriot saw off competition from SAMP/T by France’s Eurosam.
“An evaluation has revealed that these two systems offer the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost,” the government said.
Switzerland is famously neutral. However, its long-standing position is one of armed neutrality and the landlocked European country has mandatory conscription for men.
“A fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions,” the government said.
“The air force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.”
Biden’s Hard Sell
Lobbying for the contract has been intense, both in public and behind the scenes.
US President Joe Biden sang the praises of the two US-made fighter jets in the running, in a meeting with Swiss President Guy Parmelin ahead of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva earlier this month.
Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Florence Parly visited Switzerland in March to meet her counterpart.
The government said the F-35A had a marked technological advantage over the other candidates because it had powerful new systems that ensured information superiority.
“The F-35A will be able to sustain its technological lead well into the future. Given the planned service life of 30 years, this is a major advantage.”
At five billion francs, the procurement costs were around two billion francs cheaper than the second-lowest bidder, said the government.
“We’re honoured by the Swiss government’s selection of the F-35 — the most advanced and capable platform for supporting Swiss air defence requirements,” Lockheed Martin said on Twitter, adding in a video that the first jet would be delivered in 2025.
We’re honored by the Swiss government’s selection of the F-35 — the most advanced and capable platform for supporting Swiss air defense requirements for the next 50 years. pic.twitter.com/lHIaZTjN58
— Lockheed Martin (@LockheedMartin) June 30, 2021
Long Path to Decision
Switzerland began seeking replacements for its ageing fleet of fighter jets more than a decade ago, but the issue became caught up in a political battle in the wealthy Alpine nation.
Switzerland has around 30 F/A-18 Hornets, which will reach the end of their lifespan in 2030, plus F-5 Tigers which have been in service for four decades and are not equipped for night flights.
In 2014, the country looked set to purchase 22 Gripen E fighter jets from the Swedish group Saab, only to see the public vote against releasing the necessary funds.
Bern launched a new selection process in 2018, and a referendum last year to release $6.5 billion (six billion Swiss francs) to purchase new fighters of the government’s choice squeezed through with 50.1 percent backing.
Meanwhile, Switzerland’s current GBAD system is also old and lacks the capacity to meet the widening spectrum of modern threats.
Its range of Rapier and Stinger short-range missiles have been in service since 1963.
Patriot was the clear winner for the replacement, as “areas can be protected both independently and in combination with fighter aircraft,” the government said.
The procurement costs amount to just under two billion francs.