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The renewed Swiss attempt to procure new fighter jets is open to all Western manufacturers. The procurement project will also include long-range surface-to-air missiles (BODLUV). Given a volume of up to CHF8Bn (US$8.45Bn), the programme will leave its mark on the Swiss Air Force and the Ministry of Defence, but also on Swiss politics and taxpayers.

In June, the government agency ‘armasuisse‘ will complete the in-country evaluation of the five aircraft contenders. Since the GRIPEN E was rejected on the ballots in 2014, another such referendum will be held, this time ahead of any type decision. Additionally, the Swiss fleet of COUGAR and SUPER-PUMA helicopters will be rejuvenated. And there is a brand-new, government-run business jet carrying the Swiss roundel.

In the past, there have been several incidents when Swiss F-5E and F/A-18C/D aircraft were unavailable for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) alphas. However, that should change by 2021 in realisation of ‘Projekt Luftpolizeidienst 24’. Project LP24 aims at establishing a full 24/7 QRA, making Austria the only European country where no active element is on QRA at night. Moreover, Switzerland has lost half of its precious six F/A-18D two-seaters in crashes.

It was, therefore, a harsh blow to the Swiss AF – then under charismatic Airchief Markus Gygax and Defence Secretary Ueli Maurer – when in May 2014 the Swiss voters rejected the budget for the 22 GRIPEN-E/Fs. Yet, everybody in Switzerland knew that the delay would not be forever. And with international challenges mounting, it was only a matter of time before a new competition would be launched. Guy Parmelin, at the time Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection, and Sports, tasked two panels to deliver a report on the matter and to present options on how to proceed. The 200-page document ‘Air2030’ listed several options and the resulting costs for the NKF (Neues Kampfflugzeug) to replace the country’s ageing F-5E/Fs TIGER and the F/A-18C/D in service since 1992. It is now a more holistic approach to ensure the best possible future air defence and airspace security for the Swiss Confederation.

In early 2017, a panel examined possible packages, while the Federal Council opted to pursue a programme worth CHF8Bn (US$8.45Bn) for approximately 30+ aircraft and a ground-based air defence (GBAD) system. The new programme launched in November 2017 as ‘Air2030’ aimed to replace both the F-5 and the F-18 in the Swiss AF service. The DDPS also announced that in contrast to the previous botched fighter acquisition, a referendum would be held before any type of equipment is selected. That vote is likely to take place by the spring or summer of 2020, following parliamentary discussions this and early next year. A type selection would then occur in late 2020 or early 2021, leading to an IOC in 2025. The F-5s, however, will be retired before that time, and the F/A-18s will be phased out gradually when deliveries of the new aircraft start coming in.

Various Options

The options listed in ‘Air2030’ and their calculated costs included regaining the lost roles of ground attack and reconnaissance (gone with the retirement of the classics Hawker HUNTER and MIRAGE-IIIS respectively) plus renewal of the ground-based air defence system (GBADS) and radar. The two Swiss panels (one expert and one advisory panel) met 14 times between April 2016 and May 2018, coming up with four different options:
Option 1 foresees the procurement of 55-70 new combat aircraft, in addition to a multi-layered GBADS, which could cover an area of 45,000 sq km and protect 20 sites, for a total cost of CHF15Bn to CHF18Bn, with CHF4Bbn allocated to the GBADS.

The HORNETs are currently being modernised by RUAG. (Photo: RUAG)

Under Option 2, Switzerland procures 40 new combat aircraft and a GBADS, which would cover approximately 15,000 sq km. The overall procurement would include the retention of some legacy weapons systems. The cost would be CHF8Bn for the aircraft and CHF1Bn for the GBADS.

Option 3 sees the procurement of 30 new combat aircraft and a multi-layered GBADS covering 45,000 sq km. The existing GBADS would be retained only against low-level threats. Costs would amount to CHF6Bn for the aircraft and CHF2-2.5Bn for the GBADS.
Option 4 foresees the procurement of 20 new combat aircraft and a GBADS. Under this option, the service life of the F/A-18C/D would be extended to the early 2030s, and the GBADS would cover 15,000 sq km and focus primarily on threats such as helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and combat aircraft. Option 4 would cost CHF4Bn for the aircraft and CHF1Bn for the GBADS.

Reportedly, Option 3 was the most popular among a panel of experts who reviewed the report as it allows for daily air-policing operations, while the extended coverage of the GBADS provides a potential force-multiplier. Option 4 was criticised for its demand for yet another extension of the service life of the old HORNET fleet, especially as Switzerland could be the only HORNET operator towards the end of its planned service life, at which point the jet would no longer have combat effectiveness.


A US Navy F-18F at Payerne in April 2019. The type is a contender for Switzerland’s procurement programme. (Photo: armasuisse)

For the NKF requirement, the Swiss government calls for an aircraft with air defence as its primary mission, but also with the ability to perform strike and reconnaissance missions as a secondary task. The fighter must be interoperable with those employed by neighbouring states and NATO PfP nations, particularly in terms of communications, IFF, and tactical datalinks. Although the Swiss government did not specify an exact fleet size, the fleet should be large enough to maintain four aircraft on patrol for at least four consecutive weeks during periods of tension, while the logistics network must be able to maintain operations for six months – without spare parts supply from abroad. From the outset, the national armaments giant RUAG is named as the preferred centre for maintenance, repair, and overhaul. Another requirement is that an in-country evaluation is to be conducted in Switzerland and – where possible – by Swiss pilots. The quotation has to consider total costs based on procurement and operation of the equipment for a total time span of 30 years. The Swiss government clearly calls for an off-the-shelf product, with „No ‘Helvetization‘ required beyond minimal adjustments such as integration into the Swiss FLORAKO command and control network. Finally, locall assembly of the aircraft is “not a requirement, but is not ruled out.”

A Saab GRIPEN NG demonstrator at the Axalp in 2012. In 2014, Swiss citizens rejected the procurement of the GRIPEN in a referendum. (Photo: Georg Mader)

On 23 March 2018, the DDPS published the basic requirements for the new NKF and the ground-based part. The document named potential suppliers and established offset requirements. Since the 2008/2009 tender, resulting in nothing following the 2014 referendum, many facts that were controversial or considered crucial at the time have changed fundamentally since then. At that time, it was often said that the GRIPEN-E was the preferred model, but back then the full performance range of the EUROFIGHTER P1E and RAFÁLE F3 configurations was still years in the future. On the other hand, the proposals related to aircraft projects, which the various manufacturers were able to present at the time. The competitors at that time were evaluated according to what was demonstrated at that time and to what was still in progress, because all three types offered a configuration that was not yet verifiable at that time. The latter has not changed fundamentally.


Swiss officials say that the unique topography of the country determines their particular needs. While simulation can now answer many of the Swiss customer’s questions, and the number of evaluation flights has been reduced from around 20 in 2008 to only seven or eight this year, officials still need to understand how the aircraft’s sensors, in particular the radar, deal with the rugged Alpine landscape. Of the seven or eight flights, two will be technical flights and will test the sensors in an alpine environment, according to Kaj-Gunnar Sievert, Spokesperson of the Swiss Defence Agency armasuisse. Five of the flights will be typical for operations of Swiss fighter aircraft such as QRA, Scramble and Intercepts.

Each aircraft candidate had to carry out a total of seven or eight missions with one or two combat aircraft during four flight days in one week. Beforehand, the candidates had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the specific procedures in Switzerland’s narrow airspace by making another flight. One flight had to take place at night. To this end, the take-off times were seasonally adjusted, with flights always ending before midnight. No test flights were carried out at weekends or on public holidays. Since the F-35 and ‘Gripen-E’ are only single-seated (the ‘Gripen-F’ is currently only planned for Brazil), the data collection of the various mission profiles was dependent on company test pilots and the ‘armasuisse’ recording of all flight test data. On the other platforms, Swiss test pilots supervised from the rear seat of two-seater aircraft.

AIRBUS Defence for the EUROFIGHTER T3, BOEING for F-18E/F SUPER HORNET Block-III, DASSAULT for the RAFÁLE F3R, LOCKHEED-MARTIN for the F-35A JSF, and SAAB for the latest GRIPEN-E/F have submitted bids and were subsequently invited to demonstrate their aircraft at Payerne. The JAS-39 GRIPEN-E/F still is in validation-tests, like on the SELEX RAVEN radar, prior to serial-production for Brazil and Sweden. Thus, it may again not be able to demonstrate all the features that the Swedes will offer on the type.
When it comes to the F-35 demonstrators, they were sent from Hill AFB in Utah, with stops on the US east coast and Ramstein. Opinion polls show that there is general support for a new fighter, but the F-35 is considered to be too expensive and, above all, as a ‘striker’ unnecessary for Switzerland.

A Swiss Air Force One. Just recently, the Swiss government bought a brand-new PILATUS PC-24 with VIP interiors. (Photo: Pilatus)

Newspapers and discussion forums criticised and questioned that although the F-35 JSF would provide military understandable access to the latest data link and signature technologies, it would be unfair to compare it with other fourth-generation jets without considering Russian or Chinese stealth types such as Su-57 or FC-31. The author said on Swiss TV that while it is a nice idea to use such aircraft as sparring partners for Western aircraft, Switzerland’s pro-Western and NATO-oriented orientation renders such ideas inappropriate.

Another significant detail: When, on 11 April, a two-seater Eurofighter TYPHOON took off from Payerne to its first evaluation mission, the aircraft did not yet carry an active electronically scanning AESA radar behind the nose radome, nor did the Boeing SUPER HORNETs deployed later. Of course, with the CAPTOR-E there is an E-scan radar in the programme but its demonstrators are IPA5, a UK TYPHOON that has been flying with the AESA-set since July 2016 and IPA8 at Manching as a second asset. However, the latter aircraft was currently unavailable and is in a kind of ‘Frankenstein‘ configuration with P1Ea and the CAPTOR-E. The Swiss were likely better served with a mature operational asset of the P3Ea standard and that was what the RAF deployed to Switzerland, with two full T3 TYPHOONs of Nº41 Sqn, the RAF Eurofighter test and evaluation unit. P3Ea-standard and CAPTOR-E are completely unrelated, both contractually and from a configuration point of view. Therefore, it was the UK’s ‘Radar 1+Export Interim Standard’ since ‘Radar 2’ is not yet available. It remains to be seen if Eurofighter gets a chance to demonstrate the CAPTOR-E to the Swiss authorities. The situation might have been different if Eurofighter had not been the first but the last type to be evaluated. With TYHOON production for Kuwait and Qatar now underway, there are some uncertainties as to which of the latest specifications apply to which customers. It seems that, at least in terms of its radar, what Eurofighter demonstrated falls short of the RAFALE and F-35 because the radar is considered half ‘mature’. The current CAPTOR-M, nevertheless, is excellent, which has been confirmed by Austrian AF officers who have gained substantial operational experience since 2007.

Similarly, the offered Block-III of the F/A-18E/F will only feature the APG-79 AESA-radar when the first two aircraft will enter USN troop tests later this year. For flight tests in Switzerland, the aircraft carried a radar-independent and passive IRST in the front tip of the ventral fuel tank.

Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd has once again revised Switzerland’s Air2030 programme. (Photo: VBS)

Armasuisse will now use the obtained flight test data to confirm the answers to 2,000 questions provided by the manufacturers to the first request for proposals (RFP) issued in July 2018. Several voices have questioned the secrecy with which the initial bids were processed by armasuisse and DDPS. To avoid leaks, the bidding documents were locked away for weeks and fed into a data system disconnected from the internet and accessible to only five individuals. The names are publicly withheld. Similarly, the technical responses are strictly separated from the pricing details and enclosed in separate envelopes. As Mr Sievert explains, no member of the evaluation commission in his segment should be influenced by what that part means for the overall budget.

The data obtained from the flight tests will be used for a direct comparison to support a second RFP planned for 2020. A second referendum, also in 2020, is a possible hurdle for this timetable. Instead of asking whether the government should buy a particular platform, the referendum is likely to be more fundamental, officials say, and will ask whether the country should modernise its air defence system at all. Referendums are one of the most important pillars of Swiss citizenship. For the Swiss, direct democracy is not just about empty words, and such public votes take place several times a year on many important issues.

On the other hand, as we saw in 2014, a referendum on combat aircraft and SAMs can also backfire, as not all voters are experts on the capabilities and costs of military aviation. Switzerland is a stubbornly neutral non-EU country, which for decades has done much more in military terms to live up to its self-chosen status than its like-minded EU neighbour Austria. But here, too, the left-wing pacifist ‘Swiss Group without Army’ has been collecting signatures, supported by local left-green majorities in almost all major Swiss cities.


Meanwhile, the so-called BODLUV GBAD requirement is being sought for a ground-based system with a horizontal range of at least 50 km and altitude engagement capability of at least 40,000 feet (12,000 m), with the system’s radars contributing to the overall Swiss RAP (recognised air picture). Invited to bid are the Eurosam SAMP/T, RAFAEL‘s DAVID’S SLING‘ and Raytheon’s PATRIOT in conjunction with Rheinmetall. Currently, Swiss forces are operating RAPIER and STINGER missiles.

Offsets for both requirements were expected in full, divided among direct offsets associated with the purchase (20%), indirect offsets for Switzerland’s defence industry (40%) and the remaining 40% for other industries. However, latter part now seems to change. Offsets should be distributed across Swiss regions along the lines of 65% for German-speaking regions, 30% for French and 5% for Italian.

Stepping on the Brakes

As a result of the complete reshuffling of government functions in the federal executive body every two years, one of Switzerland’s two newly elected Federal Councillors, Viola Amherd of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CVP), became the country’s first Minister of Defence on 1 January 2019. She succeeds Guy Parmelin of the conservative Swiss People’s Party, who had initiated the combined procurement of combat aircraft and GBAD missiles and intended to present the entire package to parliament in February.

The Berne-based VIP transport unit also operates two EUROCOPTER EC 135 with VIP interiors. (Photo: Swiss AF)

However, as often happens when a newcomer wants to leave a footprint, already in the first month, Mme Amherd interfered with the Air2030 programme. At first, she commissioned the well-known and popular former Swiss astronaut, ex-Hawker HUNTER pilot and ex-Swissair captain Claude Nicollier with an outside assessment of the whole matter. He was given until late April to review the entire project, and his ‘second opinion’ might topple the entire programme. She requested the VBS to come up with yet another analysis of the current threat situation and also tasked Kurt Grüter, Ex-Director of the Swiss Federal audit office (SFAO), with a third outside opinion. Grüter was to investigate the cost of the assumed 100% offset transactions with Swiss industry, as well as the use of direct and indirect offsets, from a security and economic policy point of view.

All three external reports were presented to the public on 2 May, and this is when Mme. Amherd first explained that she had decided to review the biggest arms procurement programme in modern Swiss history, in an attempt to reduce the risk of yet another negative referendum outcome. Claude Nicollier recommended separating the two contracts and putting only the fighter jet acquisition up for popular vote, yet proposing the acquisition of about 40 aircraft to gradually replace the existing fleet. He also added “With every purchase of fighter aircraft, the idea of leasing comes out of the woodwork. Switzerland has leased 12 TIGER aircraft to Austria in 2004. But the opposite must remain an obvious ‘no-go’ for an independent and neutral country.“

A Swiss AF COUGAR helicopter, purchased in 1998. RUAG was contracted to upgrade the COUGARs until mid-2022. (Photo: Georg Mader)

In his report, fiscal expert Kurt Grüter acknowledged Switzerland’s efforts to increase the transparency of compensation offsets. However, only direct related cases and indirect compensatory cases relating to the technology and security industry would be relevant. He recommended giving up the other indirect compensatory cases. Given the volume of CHF6Bn to CHF7Bn, a compensation of 100% would be difficult to achieve and might generate higher prices. Cases directly related to the production of the chosen aircraft at the order of 20% and indirect compensatory cases of the order of 40% for the core industry are more realistic, provided that the quality of the industrial programmes is carefully evaluated when comparing the offers. Oscar Schwenk, Chairman of PILATUS Aircraft, said in 2018 that he would increase the price of orders from foreign armies by 15% to 20% when talking about compensation agreements.

Switzerland’s 15 SUPER PUMA transport helicopters were procured in the late 1980s and modernised by RUAG between 2011 and 2014. (Photo: Georg Mader)

Drafted under the guidance of Pälvi Pulli, the DDPS officer responsible for security policy, the threat status report reevaluated the threat scenarios, which formed the basis for the modernisation efforts in the first place. His report confirmed the previous decision that Switzerland was in dire need of sufficient combat aircraft and ground defences to effectively protect Swiss airspace. The negative development of the international security situation in the last two or three years and the time constraints associated with acquisition projects make it all the more urgent to take action.

Interim HORNET Upgrade

The new developments did not interfere with plans to extend the service-life of the F/A-18s. In spring 2017, Switzerland’s ‘Army Report 2017’ was accepted, including a CHF450M agreement to have RUAG upgrade and modernise the HORNET fleet. The aircraft are about to receive upgraded avionics and a new BVR missile. Mr. Salzmann, an armasuisse engineer at ETH Zurich, said that when evaluating the HORNETs in the early 1990s, the experts had underestimated how quickly the jets would show fatigue problems, as operation in small and mountainous airspace would put more strain on the aircraft than over flat land or sea. Mr. Salzmann was unsure whether RUAG would be able to complete the modernisation process in time, as there was a shortage of specialist human resources. Work per aircraft might also easily last up to six months instead of the planned four. Until 2024, the air force could face a limited availability of the type. In 2017, Swiss executives, however, rejected the plan to integrate an air-to-ground capability into the HORNETs. That capability was seen as an option to weigh into the new jet procurement plan. Of course, nowadays all contenders are real multi or swing role fighter jets, with the classic interceptor long since scrapped or in museums of the Cold War.

Swiss TIGERs for the US Navy

For the next couple of years, the Swiss Air Force will fly a total of 22 F-5E and four F-5F two-seaters, down from a peak of 98 and 12 in 1981. Almost all of them have become the target of a unique item in the US DoD’s FY2020 budget as the US Navy wants to acquire another 22 F-5E/Fs from Switzerland to fulfil so-called ‘fleet adversary support duties.’ The 44 F-5N/Fs that are currently flying as ‘aggressors’ with two US Navy and one Marine adversary squadrons are also from surplus Swiss Air Force stocks. However, delivery and refurbishment of those jets took place between May 2003 and November 2007 and with the fleet continuing to age, demand for its services continues to rise. Although some of this demand is being offset by employing private ‘Red Air’ contractors like ATAC or ‘Draken Intl.’ for adversary support duties, the Navy will still have to shore up its F-5 force unless it plans to retire the type entirely. Currently, the F-5 – and in particular the Swiss ones because they are very well maintained – still are a sounding economic solution for a range of threat presentations. However, theUS Navy will still have to wait a little until the Swiss have procured new aircraft.

Rotory Modernisation

In December 2018, the Swiss Air Force and armasuisse contracted the Swiss company RUAG to upgrade eight COUGAR transport helicopters until mid-2022. The COUGARs purchased in 1998 are used for transport, search and rescue missions, but the platform’s electronic flight control, navigation and communication systems now require major upgrades. The scope of the modernisation includes new flight management computers, a precision navigation system for IFR flying, a collision avoidance system that alerts pilots to aircraft in critical proximity, and a system developed by RUAG that emits an acoustic signal when the rotorcraft leaves a defined altitude.

In March 2019, RUAG Aviation and the Swiss AF selected CMC Electronics business CMC of the Canadian avionics specialist Esterline to supply their CMA-9000 flight-management System (FMS) and CMA-5024 GPS landing-system for the modernisation of these eight Swiss COUGAR helicopters. CMA-9000 supports both military and civil navigation modes and complies to the latest standards for ‘Required Navigation Performance‘ and ‘Satellite Based Augmentation System‘ (RNP/SBAS) approaches, while the CMA-5024 GPS landing system sensor meets the requirements for IFR and civil certified GPS. Its wide-area augmentation system and SBAS GPS capability provide an accurate navigation solution that supports all flight operations. Modernising the Swiss COUGAR fleet broadens the presence of CMC’s solutions within the Swiss Air Force, which also operates 15 SUPER PUMA transport helicopters (procured at the end of the 1980s and already modernised by RUAG between 2011 and 2014) and 20 EC135/635 helicopters. All of them are already equipped with CMC’s CMA-9000 and CMA-5024.

RUAG‘s COUGAR modernisation package also features helmet mounted displays to project important flight data on the pilot’s visor, as well as the latest generation of radio equipment and satellite phones, for ensuring safe OPSEC communication. RUAG will also equip the helicopters with the latest IDAS-3 self-defence system, alerting the crew to radar, laser and electro-optical waves, as well as launched missiles. It also includes countermeasures, such as dispensing decoys. In addition to the upgrade, RUAG is also tasked with conducting a full structural and mechanical overhaul on the helicopters. Specialists at RUAG will disassemble them, check the relevant parts for wear and tear and repair or replace parts as necessary.

A New Swiss Air Force One

From its facility at Belp airport to the west of the capital Berne, the Swiss AF operates a small governmental flying service, which recently received a special addition. In a handover-ceremony in Berne, on 18 February 2019, the service took delivery of a single PILATUS PC-24, registered as T-786. The domestic Swiss business jet will replace a CESSNA 560 XL CITATION EXCEL on flights operated on behalf of the Swiss Federal Council (Bundesrat). The Swiss Air Force ordered the aircraft from PILATUS in 2014 for €8.8M. Oscar Schwenk, Chairperson of Pilatus Aircraft, described the latest addition as “the new Swiss Air Force One”, saying he is “confident that other governments will adopt the PC-24 once they see the unrivalled opportunities and flexibility which it offers.”

Certificated in December 2017, the Williams International FJ44-4A-powered aircraft has a range of 2,000 nm (3,700 km), a cruise speed of 440 kt (810 km/h) and is designed to take off from and land on runways with a length of only 856m (2,810 ft). The 17-metre-long business jet is the only one of its kind that can start and land on short and/or unpaved runways made of sand and gravel. This feature gives the aircraft access to more than 20,000 landing sites around the globe, said Mr. Schwenk, more than twice as many as competing light-jet models.

The Berne-based VIP transport unit also operates a Dassault FALCON 900EX. A BEECHCRAFT-1900 turboprop will, this year, be replaced by two CANADAIR CL604s (T-751 und T-752), which are taken over from REGA MEDEVAC Aviation. And there are two (out of 20 standard configured) EUROCOPTER EC 135 with VIP interiors (T-351 und T-352).
The service’s demand for special military transport platforms has not yet been met. As early as 2015, several unsuccessful motions were submitted to parliament to review the rejection of the acquisition of two air bridges in 2004. While ALENIAs (now LEONARDO) C-27J SPARTAN and CASA (now AIRBUS) CN-235 were assessed, the Swiss neutrality principle has prevented any progress.

Georg Mader is a defence correspondent and freelance aerospace journalist based in Vienna, Austria, and a regular contributor to ESD.