Various international media have reported on Switzerland’s current defense procurement, the largest in its history. Switzerland’s goal is to redefine the defense of its national airspace in a program called Air2030. They will determine what aircraft the Swiss air force will fly for the foreseeable future (the next 40 years) and what ground-based air defense system will protect the country. Although international reports have discussed aspects of the Swiss procurement process, particularly about the fighter aircraft being considered, the political debate has been overlooked. A closer look will clearly show the importance of security and defense issues for an international audience.
Switzerland is a unique country in a unique geostrategic and political situation. It is famous for its strict adherence to neutrality and its citizens-in-arms as part of an army that would make it difficult for any invader to conquer. This concept of armed neutrality has been a considerable factor in establishing Switzerland’s notable wealth and political stability. According to its constitution, it is not allowed to be involved in armed or political conflict between other states. Switzerland has the world’s oldest policy of military neutrality and has never participated in a foreign war since its neutrality was officially established in 1815.
It is worth noting that there are ongoing debates as to whether this neutrality is real or an oft-stated but realistically inaccurate description. This will not be discussed in this article. The focus is on the political and operational discussion surrounding the procurement process of Air2030.
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Geographically, Switzerland is situated in one of the world’s most stable regions, between France, Italy, Germany and Austria. All of its neighbors are EU members and, with the exception of neutral Austria, also NATO members. Anyone contemplating a military incursion by land or air into this land-locked nation would have to pass through NATO territory or NATO airspace. Politically, Switzerland developed a democratic system in which its citizens have the right to participate directly in government decisions and sometimes even in defense-related decisions.
Many in the world envy and admire the Swiss for such direct democracy, and while the success of Switzerland’s political framework is clear, its effectiveness is based upon access to accurate information. In the current national debate about Air2030 however, this access is highly questionable.
Switzerland’s Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports (DDPS) oversees the country’s defense issues. Its previous plan for the procurement of fighter aircraft was rejected by a majority of the Swiss people. In 2014, the Gripen fighter jet, manufactured by Saab in Sweden, was turned down by 53% of the Swiss. The Gripen rejection was a major blow for the DDPS and has certainly influenced their current procurement effort. During the previous procurement attempt, the Gripen did not pass all internal Swiss evaluation tests and compared less favorably against the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
Still, the Swiss government decided to promote the purchasing process in 2011 for a little more than $3 billion. Saab’s competitors, of course, disagreed vehemently with this decision and protested. Coincidently, internal Swiss test results of the aircraft evaluation were anonymously leaked and the Swiss media started to call the Gripen a “paper plane.” Petitions against the Gripen began. In 2014, an unlikely coalition of military critics, pacifists, political skeptics and those who preferred a more capable aircraft stopped the Swiss procurement plans through a referendum.
In 2020, the DDPS is again trying to convince the Swiss electorate of the need for a new aircraft. This time, it’s the Air2030 defense plan, which entails the acquisition of new fighter jets at a price tag of around $6 billion and ground-based air defense systems at a further $2 billion. Learning from the Gripen rejection, direct involvement of the Swiss voters has been adjusted accordingly: The people will not have the chance to vote for or against ground-based air defense or what system will be purchased. However, they will still have the opportunity to influence the procurement of fighter jets, but not around a particular aircraft type.
The DDPS will evaluate and choose among four aircraft: the European (Germany, UK, Italy, Spain) coproduction Eurofighter Typhoon; the French Dassault Rafale; or the American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet or Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II. On September 27, the Swiss referendum will determine whether the DDPS has the mandate to choose one of these aircraft or not. The referendum cannot influence which aircraft Switzerland will ultimately purchase. Many Swiss citizens are frustrated at their inability to influence this procurement decision.
The aircraft type is of operational and military importance, but also of political relevance. The purchasing decision will wed the Swiss military to the country producing the aircraft they select for many years to come. In a country dominated by a mindset of neutrality, this is not a decision to be made lightly.
So far, the Air2030 discussion in Switzerland has been emotional and politically motivated, with many facts frequently discarded from the conversation. The DDPS has framed the upcoming referendum as an essential question about Switzerland’s defense capability. According to the DDPS, a no to Air2030 would be a vote against the Swiss military and would leave Switzerland defenseless after 2030, due to its supposed eight-to-10-year procurement process. DDPS argues that if this opportunity is missed now, Switzerland will not be able to field new fighter jets by 2030. Without fighter jets, it claims the Swiss military cannot fulfill its basic defense functions.
The commander of the Swiss air force further warned that there was no “plan B” and that Switzerland without Air2030 will not have a functioning air force after 2030. Needless to say, not having a plan B does not speak well for Swiss military planning functions. It is also important to note that the Swiss air force commander implied that Switzerland would start fielding the first new fighter aircraft as early as 2025 if Air2030 was approved by the Swiss people. Contrary to the DDPS statements, it should be absolutely possible to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new viable defense plan if the people vote against Air2030 and still have a solution fielded by 2030.
The DDPS justifies the need for new fighter jets by 2030 due to the aging fleet of the current F/A-18 Hornets. According to the DDPS, the F/A-18 Hornet is outdated and obsolete. In the Swiss press, the aircraft has been called an “old-timer plane.” Swiss defense minister, Viola Amherd, stated in parliament and in numerous interviews that Switzerland would be the world’s last country to fly the F/A-18 Hornet by 2030. Put simply, this is not true. Canada will operate its F/A-18 Hornets, which are much older than the Swiss ones, until 2032. The Canadian Air Force was one of the first to acquire the Hornet in 1982, while Switzerland was one of the last countries to do so between 1997 and 1999.
The Canadian F/A-18 Hornets were used during Operation Desert Storm over Kuwait and Iraq, during NATO operations over Yugoslavia and Libya, and during the military air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. They are currently actively engaged with the US Air Force under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in protecting the North American continental airspace and are part of NATO’s air policing missions in the Baltic states, Romania and Iceland.
These real-world missions will continue to be carried out by Canadian F/A-18 Hornets into the 2030s. Canada, together with the US Marine Corps, is currently upgrading its Hornets. Just like Canada, the Marine Corps will continue to operate the F/A-18 Hornet in the future. It is therefore difficult to believe the Swiss argument that its Hornets are no longer adequate for the mission of the Swiss air force. In 2016 already, the Canadian Air Force declared that some of its Hornets had up to 8,000 flight hours, many of them under combat conditions. Switzerland is currently modifying its Hornet fleet from 5,000 to 6,000 flight hours and is claiming that the planes have reached their ultimate limit.
Malaysia is also prolonging the life of its Hornets. In this process, Malaysia is acquiring used F/A-18 Hornets from Kuwait that will be delivered by 2021 and then be operated by Malaysia for an additional 10 to 15 years. Especially interesting is the fact that the Swiss DDPS is aware of this. The maintenance of the Malaysian F/A-18 Hornets is done by RUAG, a Swiss company specializing in defense and aerospace engineering. RUAG emerged in 2003 from the Swiss Federal Office of Topography of the Armament Group, which was divided into the commercial RUAG and the federal agency Armasuisse (Federal Office for Defense Procurement), which falls under the DDPS. The Swiss voters, however, will likely not be aware of any of this when they vote on the replacement of the F/A-18 Hornet. Mainstream Swiss media has almost unanimously repeated the notion that the F/A-18 Hornet is obsolete, outdated and inadequate for continuous service. No one in the media questioned the defense minister’s false statements about Switzerland being the last country to continue to operate the F/A-18 Hornet.
The main task of the new Swiss fighter jets will be so-called air policing in order to maintain air sovereignty and security. As part of air policing activities, the air force checks with its live missions that the flight routes of aircraft correspond with the clearance they have been given. Air policing missions carried out to assist civilian aircraft or in response to serious violations of air sovereignty or air traffic rules are called hot missions. The Swiss government declared that the Swiss air force conducted an average of 270 live and 20 hot missions per year over the last decade. The Air2030 critics argue that, in the rare cases of a more robust scenario, Switzerland could still use the F/A-18 Hornet.
According to the critics, all 270 live missions, and even the majority of hot missions, could be carried out by less sophisticated and less expensive military aircraft than those the DDPS is proposing. Such alternatives are light fighters and combat variants of training aircraft. The DDPS and the defense minister responded that training planes do not have the technical ability nor are they equipped to carry out air policing missions. This is repeated in almost every discussion and open hearing in Switzerland. The defense minister even stated that such training aircraft couldn’t be armed at all and that they are a “total waste.”
Further, according to the DDPS, no air force in the world is using training aircraft for such missions. The mainstream Swiss media was quick to again parrot these comments and helped shape the opinion that the critics were providing unrealistic, ill-informed and absurd ideas. Again, this is not true. Contrary to the statements by Viola Amherd, it must be understood that the alternative aircraft options are not exclusive training jets. They are light fighters based on airframes that are also used for aircraft dedicated to training.
Uniquely, Switzerland should not be unfamiliar with this concept. The F-5 Tiger, operated by the Swiss air force for decades in air policing missions is this type of plane. The F-5 Tiger is the fighter version of the T-38, which has been a training aircraft for many air forces, including the US Air Force. Interestingly enough, seasoned and combat-proven US Air Force fighter pilots have openly advocated for new and more economic light fighters derived from training platforms to fill a role to maintain air sovereignty alert in the United States. In their eyes, these aircraft could be used to respond to airspace incursions, external threats, wayward aircraft and terrorist operations. Such planes could execute this essential mission at a much lower cost, avoiding the need to allocate expensive F-35s for a task they are less than optimal for.
In 2019, US Congress mandated the Air Force to explore its future inventory. As a result, the renowned MITRE Corporation and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recommended that the US Air Force arm its new trainer jets to fly homeland defense missions. Further, those fighter versions of training aircraft could be exported overseas to countries for whom complex fifth-generation fighter jets would make little sense. Despite overwhelming examples supporting the critics’ viewpoint, the Swiss public has not been informed. Not one mainstream Swiss media outlet has reported on such plans for training platforms in the US Air Force.
The new US jet trainer, the T-7 Red Hawk, a co-production between Boeing and Saab, will be marketed in a light fighter version as an alternative for air forces (such as Switzerland’s) operating the F-5 Tiger. A combat variant of its T-7 jet trainer is viewed as a replacement of the world’s aging fleets of F-5 Tigers. Serbia has recently voiced interest in buying the T-7 Red Hawk to complement and support its current MIG-29 Fulcrum fleet to counter and intercept airspace incursions. When taking a look at examples from around the world, it is clear that not every air force is using only strictly dedicated multirole fighters to defend airspace. Armed trainers have been successfully employed by many air forces, including many top tier ones. Nevertheless, the Swiss are kept in the dark about this. Repeatedly, it has been stated by official Swiss channels and the media that such a thing cannot and does not exist.
There is reason to believe that this misinformation is deliberate. How is it that the DPPS is not aware of armed training aircraft serving to control airspace? Especially, since the Swiss RUAG is actively engaged with air forces that use said aircraft types in such a function. Armed trainers like the BAE Hawk are in service with the royal Malaysian air force to supplement its fighter fleet and directly contribute to the country’s air defense.
Problematic Threat Analysis
A question that has been asked in Switzerland is about the plans of how to protect the expensive and complex aircraft on the ground as well as their facilities. If airbases and runways are not adequately protected, the most sophisticated combat aircraft could become useless. In this respect, the RAND Corporation recently published an extensive study on airbase defense in Europe for the US Air Force and concluded that cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones pose major threats. Enemy aircraft, on the other hand, are only considered a moderate risk, given NATO capabilities to counter combat aircraft and the low probability that any single threat aircraft (let alone a large force) could reach an airbase in the rear.
This should be important for Switzerland and its defense planning. Surrounded by NATO countries, this means that it would be highly unlikely that the Swiss air force will encounter enemy aircraft in an open conflict, but instead it needs to consider missiles and drones. However, Air2030 identifies combat aircraft as its main threat and does not believe that ballistic missiles pose any threat at all. According to the Air2030 planners, ballistic missiles aren’t accurate and, therefore, are not used as effective military means.
Justifiably, international military experts vehemently disagree. Ever since the precise Iranian ballistic missile attacks on US airbases in Iraq, it is clear that the Swiss defense planners were absolutely wrong in their assessment. In this context it is critical to know that only certain ground-based air defenses could combat ballistic missiles; fighter jets do not have that capability. When the DPPS was confronted with criticism about its unrealistic position on ballistic missiles and its neglect of defense considerations, its initial reaction was to personally attack the critics. The DPPS continually maintained that its new ground-based air defense only needs to be capable of intercepting aircraft and that ballistic missiles are not a threat.
Then, suddenly, in January this year, this position changed. Now, the DPPS claims that defense options against ballistic missiles must be discussed within the evaluation of new ground-based air defense systems for Switzerland. This change of opinion was not well communicated to the media or the Swiss people but arose in a seemingly minor alteration of the text to the requirements for the procurement of ground-based air defenses. The significance of this was lost on the Swiss press. This abrupt change is essentially an admission by the DPPS that its threat assessment was wrong.
Threat analysis is the most foundational aspect of any defense plan. If the threat assessment was flawed, it means the entire defense plan must be critically reevaluated. As the defense plan’s main operational asset and financial focus is a new Swiss fighter jet that cannot protect against ballistic missiles, this reevaluation is imperative.
From the beginning of the debate around Air2030, critics have tried to point out the dependence that Switzerland would be under with the purchase of new aircraft. The F-35 especially was criticized as a means for the United States to have access to sensitive Swiss data and have the ability to control the performance of the Swiss air force. These claims are not unjustified. The F-35 is the world’s most sophisticated and highly capable aircraft. However, international avionics experts have questioned if this fifth-generation multirole fighter is not “overkill” for a country like Switzerland.
Very early into the program, the foreign partners of the F-35 were already worried about the data the aircraft is collecting, storing and sending back to the United States. Further concerns entailed links to the aircraft collection system that could get cut, especially in the middle of a crisis. The F-35’s interconnectedness gives the US government or its manufacturer Lockheed Martin unprecedented access and level of export control of software updates to foreign operators. The only foreign operator that is not dependent on the US upgrades is Israel, which was able to negotiate for itself the right to install a different software system.
It is interesting that just at the same time as the debate in the United States and Israel about the features and dependencies of the F-35 in regard of a possible sale to UAE is ongoing, the head of security policy in the DPPS and the defense minister assured the Swiss that no foreign power could have any influence on the performance of any of the potential Swiss aircraft and could neither ground them. According to the head of security policy for the DPPS, there are absolutely no grounds for such rumors. Externally influencing aircraft, according to her, is impossible, and any such notions are “complete nonsense.” The Swiss mainstream media accepted these assurances and let them stand without questioning them.
One has to wonder how this is possible when at the same time international experts are contemplating in public that the US could very well go ahead and sell the F-35 to the UAE without endangering Israel’s qualitative military edge since the United States could interfere with its performance at any time. It is internationally widely reported that the US government has enhanced safeguards to curtail F-35s in the hands of potential Arab buyers should the geopolitical situation change. The US would have little trouble grounding the Emirati fleet should Abu Dhabi ever “go rogue.” Without US support, the F-35 fleet would be effectively useless.
The Swiss people now have to decide if Air2030 will be the right concept for the defense of Switzerland or not. In order to do so, they need to have access to a broad spectrum of information and different perspectives. Given an honest and factual approach, they may very well vote for Air2030 in support of the DPPS. But, undeniably, the question of new fighter jets for the Swiss air force appears to be preordained for certain outcomes based on previous negative procurement experience. To this date, the Air2030 program has been characterized by disingenuous political maneuvering, an inaccurate capability discussion and a flawed defense design. With the exception of a few journalists, the Swiss mainstream media has hardly produced factual content or critical analysis of the biggest defense procurement in the nation’s history.
For September 27, the Swiss media has predicted an overwhelming victory for Air2030 and the first female Swiss defense minister, who appears to have political ambition for more than just her current position. A win in the referendum will catapult her popularity, increase her weight in Swiss politics and may facilitate her rise to even more prestigious positions. However, if Air2030 will be approved, it certainly will become clear relatively soon that this project was a bad investment with dubious defense value under a false pretense.
*[The expressed opinions are the author’s own and do not represent those of the US Air Force or any other military branch, the US Department of Defense or the US government.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.