What’s next for Switzerland’s Air2030 fighter programme?

By a majority of just 9,000 votes, citizens of Switzerland narrowly favoured the procurement of new multi-role fighters for the Swiss Air Force in a national referendum held on September 27.

The referendum had a relatively high overall turnout of 59.4%, with 50.1% of voters favouring the CH₣6bn (US$6.49bn) acquisition. According to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s international unit, Swissinfo, “projections over the past weeks had shown clear acceptance for the government-backed plan,” but the actual result was hard to call until the last minute.

Swiss F/A-18C [USAF/Senior Airman Justine Rho] #1
A Swiss Air Force Boeing F/A-18C Hornet multi-role fighter receives fuel from a US Air Force (USAF) Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker over Germany on October 20, 2017. USAF/Senior Airman Justine Rho

This result comes after the Swiss population rejected a funding package to acquire Saab’s Gripen E multi-role fighter in 2014. Once again, voters had the chance to approve or reject the Swiss Department of Defence’s Air2030 fighter procurement programme and the acquisition of a new extended-range ground-based defence system. The Air2030 project seeks to procure a new multi-role fighter to replace the Swiss Air Force’s ageing Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet and Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II fleets.

The Swiss Air Force’s F-5E/F fleet is the older of the two platforms, having served in its ranks since 1978. In total, 110 examples were delivered to Switzerland, comprising 98 single-seat F-5Es and 12 two-seat F-5Fs. AirForces Intelligence data states that, as of October 2, the air arm operates 23 F-5Es and six F-5Fs.

Switzerland’s legacy Hornet fleet entered operational service in 1997. The air force accepted 26 examples of the single-seat F/A-18C and eight two-seat F/A-18Ds. AirForces Intelligence data adds that the service currently operates 25 F/A-18Cs and five F/A-18Ds.

Swiss F-5E [Swiss Armed Forces/Philipp Schmidli]
A Swiss Air Force Northrop F-5E Tiger II soars through the Swiss Alps in November 2012. VBS/DDPS

In 2017, the Swiss government approved CH₣450m (US$489.3m) of funding to extend the service life of the F/A-18C/D fleet from 5,000 flight hours to 6,000 to keep the aircraft viable until 2030.

 

Air2030

The Air2030 programme is of great importance to the Swiss military. In a press release in May 2019, the Swiss DOD said: “The current fighter planes are coming to the end of their useful life. If they are not replaced in time, Switzerland will no longer be able, by 2030 at the latest, to protect its airspace and, even more, to defend it.”

Switzerland has outlined a requirement for between 36 and 40 aircraft, including logistics and weapons. These aircraft will be predominately employed in a 24/7 air policing role and must be capable of defending Swiss airspace and supporting ground forces.

In response to an invitation from armasuisse – the Swiss defence procurement agency – five companies threw their hat into the ring in a bid to provide Switzerland’s next fighter aircraft. This comprised the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and Saab Gripen E/F.

F/A-18C Swiss Air Force [Swiss Armed Forces/Alexander Kühni] #1
Making sparks. A pair of Swiss Air Force F/A-18C Hornets deploy flares as they navigate through the Swiss Alps in October 2018. VPS/DDPS

Last summer, four of the five contending platforms conducted flight and ground tests in relation to Air2030 at Payerne air base in western Switzerland. Saab announced its withdrawal from the programme in June 2019, citing that armasuisse had recommended the move as the Gripen E was not operationally ready. 

Alongside its search for a new fighter, Switzerland is looking to procure an extended-range ground-based air defence system. For this acquisition, there are only two candidates: Raytheon’s MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and the MBDA-Thales Eurosam SAMP/T medium-range SAM system.

In January 2020, armasuisse issued a second request for proposals (RFP) to the government authorities of the manufacturers of the four remaining contending aircraft and long-range SAM defence systems. This second proposal requested that each supplier defined the prices for 36 and 40 aircraft, as well as outlining the logistics/weapons packages and other industrial offsets associated with the offer.

 

What’s next for Air2030

Now that the Air2030 programme and its funding has (narrowly) passed the national referendum, armasuisse can continue on to the next phase of the selection process.

Kaj-Gunnar Sievert, a project manager at armasuisse, told Key.Aero that the procurement agency is expecting the second proposals to be sent to them by November 2020. This was expected to happen in August but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the agency delayed the deadline but stressed that it has caused no impact to the procurement schedule.

F-5E Tiger II [Khalem Chapman]
A Swiss Air Force Northrop F-5E Tiger II - serial J-3038 (c/n L1038) - taxis onto the runway before departing RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, for Switzerland in July 2016. Khalem Chapman 

Following the submission of the second proposals, Air2030 will move into the next phase, explains Sievert. “The overall utility of each system will be determined using the information from the second proposal and the findings from the various testing activities. A comparison of overall utility with the costs and the risks will take place in 2021,” he said.

The results will then be combined with an in-depth risk analysis that will create a full evaluation report for each contending platform. Sievert adds that the “overall utility of the new fighter aircraft and the new extended-range ground-based air defence system will be set against the costs of procurement and 30 years of operation.” This process will take place in 2021.

“Based on the evaluation report, the head of the DDPS (the Swiss Minister of Defence) will be presented with a recommendation for the most suitable fighter aircraft and extended-range ground-based air defence system for Switzerland,” he continued. The final type selection will be made by the Swiss Federal Council.

Swiss F/A-18C [USAF/Senior Airman Justine Rho] #1
Three Swiss F/A-18Cs fly in formation with a USAF-operated KC-135R Stratotanker after receiving fuel from the RAF Mildenhall-based tanker aircraft during a training mission over Germany in October 2017. USAF/Senior Airman Justine Rho

It is still very much a four-horse race between Airbus (Eurofighter), Boeing, Dassault Aviation and Lockheed Martin to provide a new multi-role fighter to Switzerland.

On September 30, the US State Department approved the possible Foreign Military Sales of 40 F-35As to Switzerland for US$6.58bn, 40 F/A-18E/Fs for US$7.45bn and five Patriot systems for US$2.2bn. These are not confirmed sales and are just formal approval notifications of potential deals that are submitted to the US Congress ahead of any official acquisition.

However, these notifications give a good indication as to the costs associated with half of the solutions being offered to Switzerland. Germany is leading the Typhoon bid with Airbus on behalf of the Eurofighter consortium and France is offering the Rafale and Eurosam SAMP/T system. No costs have been publicly released regarding the European offers.