Swiss voters voted by a slender margin on 27 September (50.2% of a 59.4% turnout) to authorise replacement of the nation’s combat aircraft fleet. Following the ‘direct democracy‘ episode of 2014, in which the government’s request to procure the GRIPEN was defeated, the electorate delivered last-minute approval for the expenditure of up to CHF6 billion (€5.55 billion) on a fleet of 32-36 aircraft. Just an hour before the polls closed, indications were the proposal would be rejected, but it seems that the majority of the rural population and the German-speaking eastern and central regions saved the day – by just 9,743 votes.
For months, Defence Minister Viola Amherd has been describing as ‘critical‘ the programme to replace the current fleet of 54 F-5E/F and F/A-18C/Ds by 2030 with a single-type solution – and has stressed there is no ‘Plan B.‘ She also characterised the outcome as a vote for or against Switzerland having modern armed forces. She was visibly moved on Sunday by the closely contested vote and reflective, saying later in a press conference that she was “[...] happy about the results. These new fighters are important to secure Swiss security and neutrality in the long term. Thanks to the ‘yes‘ [vote], the whole Swiss army will be able to fulfill it’s duties. Evaluations will go on...“
The Swiss Air Force Neues Kampfflugzeug (NKF) project leader, Divisionär Peter Merz – who will become Air Force commander next June – and defence procurement agency armasuisse are now authorised to proceed to the ‘best-and-final-offer‘ level of negotiations, since all the necessary evaluations were completed by last summer. GRIPEN E was dropped, since Saab could not provide an “operationally mature“ aircraft for evaluation – there were then only three existing E models, which were undergoing testing. The selection of type is therefore one between the remaining candidates – RAFALE F4, TYPHOON T4, F-18E/F Advanced and F-35A. A decision is anticipated in the first half of 2021 and the matter will then be referred to Parliament.
Given the very tight margin in the referendum, the Socialists will likely further push for the acquisition of light combat aircraft, such as Leonardo’s M346FA, for the air policing mission, thus ‘saving‘ the F/A-18s and stretching their service life beyond 2030. Instead, they are also calling for the investment of CHF1 billion in new long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Another CHF2 billion, currently earmarked for exactly such an acquisition of either Eurosam SAMP/T or Raytheon PATRIOTs, was not specifically highlighted in yesterday’s referendum.
Georg Mader in Vienna for MON