With the programme delayed by the pandemic, 18 November 2020 marked the deadline for a quartet of hopeful vendors to deliver their vision and prices for one of the largest procurement programmes in Europe.
Four aircraft manufacturers have submitted final offers for Switzerland’s acquisition of 36 to 40 new multirole jets worth CHF6Bn. In parallel, a system of long-range ground-based surface-to-air missiles (called BodLuv) has been requested, adding another CHF2Bn to the total cost. Following a referendum on 27 September 2020 that by 50.1 per cent (or 8,670 votes) provided the green light for the project called “Air-2030”, the Swiss Air Force’s NKF-board (Neues Kampfflugzeug) under Peter Winter and national armament agency armasuisse are expected to forward both decisions to parliament in early summer 2021.
Swiss colleagues and friends described to ESD the true nature of the shock to the government and the country’s military leadership that 49.9 per cent of Swiss voters, especially in the western and southern parts of the country, did not “behave” in a traditionally supportive manner on Army matters and also that they had not “bought” their arguments. These were that for control, protection and defence of neutral Swiss airspace, a combination of modern jets and GBAD would be essential. Today’s aircraft types such as the F/A-18C/Ds and short-range SAMs are, or will soon (meaning by 2030) become obsolete, while a long-range SAM does not exist at all since the once mighty BLOODHOUND was retired in 1999. Visibly sobered by the razor thin outcome was Defence Minister Viola Amherd, who linked the issue with the fate of the whole Swiss Army.
With Europe or with the US?
Up until the end of the final risk assessment, the quotation for the best-and-final offers and the previous in-country evaluations, the list of competitors includes:
- EUROFIGHTER Tranche 4 (Airbus D&S, Germany)
- F/A-18 SUPER HORNET (Boeing, USA)
- RAFÁLE F4 (Dassault, France)
- F-35A (Lockheed Martin, USA)
- GBAD-Systems by SAMP/T (Eurosam, France)
- PATRIOT (Raytheon, USA).
This range illustrates that the upcoming decision is not only a technical, but also a highly political, issue. The security orientation of this formally neutral and wealthy nation – embedded and interconnected, but strictly not part of the EU – for the next 30 years is standing at the crossroads between deeper European defence cooperation or to remain a “wing” of the USAF or USN (as it has been and will still be if the SUPER HORNET is chosen).
Another factor is the level of participation of Swiss industry, whose share, however, has been limited to 60 per cent of the total value. Switzerland has an active and capable aerospace and defence industry, thus it comes as no surprise that Airbus and – to a lesser degree – Lockheed Martin are touting different approaches to assembling their planes locally. Airbus has been assisted by four EUROFIGHTER operators – (Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK) – who sent their ambassadors in Switzerland to a news conference to talk up the prospect of a wider industrial and political partnership that would follow if the EUROFIGHTER were to be chosen. With Austria’s 15 downgraded Tranche-1s, three Swiss neighbours with common languages are operating this aircraft type. Michael Flügger, Germany’s ambassador in Switzerland, mentioned the possibility of EUROFIGHTER-based airspace patrol cooperation along the Italy-Switzerland-Germany axis and Franz Posch, who heads the Airbus campaign in Switzerland, told reporters that “the company’s commitment to locally assemble all of the notional aircraft would more than fulfil the offset requirements established by the Swiss Government.”
His ‘boss’, CEO Dirk Hoke added that “Switzerland will gain full autonomy in the use, maintenance and application of the data from its aircraft. By providing construction data and other important information, Switzerland will be given complete and independent control of the EUROFIGHTER.”
Controversial Discussions, Heated Debates
Lockheed Martin, with its F-35, also has high hopes to broaden the plane’s user base in Europe with Switzerland firmly in its sights. The company’s offer includes a basic programme of 36 jets, with options for an additional four aircraft. According to the company, LM is offering one ‘extra’ industrial participation opportunity to Switzerland. For an unspecified additional cost, Switzerland will be able to conduct the final assembly of four F-35 aircraft at the RUAG facilities in Emmen by 2028, allowing the Swiss technicians that currently work on the country’s aging HORNET fleet to gain deeper knowledge of the aircraft’s design. Switzerland would further have the opportunity to domestically produce about 400 canopies and transparencies for any F-35 aircraft and LM would establish a European hub for the maintenance, repair and overhaul of F 35 canopies and transparencies in Switzerland. Also, the Swiss would be able to purchase parts through the pool shared by all F-35 operators while their offer also contains a six-month deployed spares package, a separate ‚ ‘pot’ of parts that would always be managed locally to meet Swiss autonomy operational requirements. The same applies for ‘certain’ engine and airframe refurbishment projects. It has to be added that the selection of F-35s triggers the most controversial discussions, since in heated debates, many in politics and in media circles refer to the aircraft as a striker. On the other hand, it would be fully logical if, in an acquisition foreseen for 30+ years, with the latest technology, and with an impact on the entire military sector would not be pursued or assessed by the Air Force evaluators. An important point here could be last year’s recognition by the F-35 Joint Programme Office (JPO) that – after years of painful patches, LM‘s ALIS maintenance platform no longer offers a stable basis for the long-term operation of the F-35 and a new cloud-based and government owned Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN) is announced for December 2022.
Boeing has positioned its offer of an F-18E/F SUPER HORNET (Advanced) fleet as a logical extension of Switzerland’s existing F-18 infrastructure. As an F/A-18 operator, Switzerland would have the option to reuse up to 60 per cent of existing physical and intellectual infrastructure, making the transition easier and more cost effective over the service life of the aircraft. As regards costs, the company adds that their offer would “easily fit within Switzerland’s current F-18 operating budget.” Regarding offsets, one has ““reached out to 100 current and new partners across Switzerland.” One aspect seen as a true surprise in several media outlets and other forums, was the fact that after US notifications, the same number of F-18E/Fs would be US$870M more expensive than the F-35s. But that may – partly – be explained by the variety and amount of ordnance involved.
France’s Dassault, with its offer of the RAFALE-F4 – mentioned by many Swiss interlocutors to ESD as the ‘secret champion’ – is the only vendor keeping tight-lipped. Citing only a commitment to confidentiality, a spokesperson told reporters after the final bids were delivered, that “the company had no plans to characterise its offer nor the nature of the relationship between the Swiss and French governments to that end.” Since then – no public message has been heard.
The latest developments were clarification visits to authorities and industrial partners in Paris, Berlin and Washington up to the end of January by armasuisse head, Martin Sonderegger, Peter Winter and BodLuv project leader Markus Graf. Currently, the evaluators are supporting the political process regarding the two decisions, which are to be implemented in the so-called ‘Army message 2022’ by the end of 2021. This means that contract negotiations need to be finalised by then. Deliveries are expected between 2025 and 2030. Indirectly connected to the fighters is another Swiss Air Force project called ‘Silenzio’, which looks to support national airspace radar coverage with sensors and software of a truly passive system. It is not known, however, if ‘usual’ providers like the Czech ERA, Saab or Hensoldt have already been consulted.
Round the Clock Service
By the very end of 2020, the Swiss Air Force established a 24h QRA-readiness capability with two armed F/A-18C/Ds operating at a maximum of 15 minutes notice to get airborne at any time in Swiss airspace. This has been subject to a parliamentary motion since 2009 and for that reason, 100 extra functions and an additional €28M per year has been provided. Neighbouring Austria is now – as far as ESD is aware – the last country in Europe with no 24h QRA capability.
Until mid-2022, RUAG, for a total of CHF168M, is extending the service life of eight Swiss Air Force COUGAR helicopters by modernising their flight-management computers, precision navigation and communication systems, new radios, helmet displays and IDAS-3 self-defence kits. Fifteen older SUPER PUMA platforms already underwent a similar upgrade before 2014. Following that contract, RUAG seems to be withdrawing completely from any defence business in order to focus on the space sector. Subsequently, it has recently given away all MROs on military helicopters at Oberpfaffenhofen to General Atomics Europe (HQ in Dresden). This step incidentally also creates some doubts about LM’s proposal to implement the final assembly of F-35s at any of RUAG’s facilities.