Next summer, the Swiss government will select one of four competitors to replace its aging fleet of F-5 Tigers and F / A-18 Hornets by 2030: Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault’s Rafale, Boeing’s F / A-18 Super Hornet, and Lockheed Martin
Surrounded by five European countries, Switzerland has a total land border of 1,151 miles. At a cruise speed (about 470 knots), an F-35A can fly north to south across the country in about 15 minutes and from west to east in about 24 minutes. Swiss Air Force F / A-18s routinely do so, fulfilling their air defense / air police mission.
The country’s longstanding commitment to neutrality means its air force is really just air defense. What it needed most were interceptors. Ironically, the F / A-18C is a multi-role aircraft as everyone in the quartet is vying to replace it, no more than the F-35. The irony lies alongside a divided population over acquiring new fighters.
In 2014, the Swiss public voted against the purchase of the Saab JAS-39 Gripens to replace the Hornets. The results were different last September. But it’s nail biting 50.1% of the roughly three million who voted “yes,” less than 9,000 more than those who voted “no,” to a size that culls $ 6.5 billion to buy 36 to 40 new aircraft.
Despite the green light, opponents have voted for the F-35 with Swiss Social Democratic MP Roger Nordmann. notify Swiss public television that “it is impossible to buy the American F-35, which is the most expensive”.
Given the situation and competition, what is Lockheed’s promotion to Switzerland?
In a Great Position
Perhaps surprisingly, cost is one of the competitive advantages that the Lockheed F-35 Swiss campaign manager, Jim Robinson, praised first.
“We are in a great position … We will come at or below the cost of 4th generation competitors so I think that makes us very competitive,” said Robinson.
He stressed that Lockheed’s proposal includes 40 aircraft (not 36 reported) at significant industrial offsets, priced in the $ 6.5 billion budget. He added that unlike its competitors, the F-35 will not require Switzerland to purchase additional accessories such as launch rails, targeting pods or special weapons interfaces, all of which are integrated into the F-35A.
“The plane was ready on the first day. You don’t need additional mission equipment to add to the aircraft’s capabilities, ”said Robinson.
Lightning II is also headed in the right direction in terms of volume, support and cost per flight hour (CPFH), Lockheed’s campaign manager confirmed.
Currently, 13 countries operate more than 585 F-35s from 26 bases around the world. A growing number in Europe and the F-35 Final Assembly and Checkout Facility (FACO) near Cameri, Italy, provide synergy with potential Swiss maintenance / support operations.
The F-35 CPFH has become a topic among the program’s partner countries as well as Switzerland which recognizes it at $ 35,000 per hour, is almost twice as expensive as European and American competitors. Robinson denied that Lockheed was “on track” to lower CPFH to $ 25,000 by 2025, two years before Swiss deliveries will begin.
The cost of flying hours is notoriously difficult to compute and compare but Robinson adds that a growing international fleet larger than the Eurofighter or Rafale will further lower the average.
Despite this, there are still doubts among the Swiss that the purchase of the F-35 will stay within budget. Given the F-35’s specific ground infrastructure requirements (hangar, ALIS support system, secure mission planning), additional costs were logically expected. Critics insist that this and others will push the bill for the F-35 $ 27 billion (CHF 24 billion).
Choices that are excessive or obvious
The F-35’s reputation is built on its ability to penetrate sophisticated air defense environments, attack, and provide networked information to other aircraft, land and sea platforms. As noted, the Swiss Air Force is not expected to do any of these things. Stealth and grid jets could be considered redundant for air surveillance missions.
Robinson stressed that Switzerland’s upgrade program, called “Air 2030,” seeks combat aircraft that can deal with four decades of evolving threats (2030-2070). The F-35, he said, is the “best tool” for adapting to geopolitical and technological changes. He pointed out that Switzerland’s request for proposal specifically calls for the ability to reintroduce their pilots to the air-ground mission role and ISR capabilities.
What uses the possible advanced ISR capabilities for Swiss aircraft operating within or near Swiss airspace and what disruptions or transgressions of the system might collect data large enough for Switzerland’s neighbors seem to be a reasonable question.
But Robinson argues that the F-35’s sophistication makes it the only viable candidate in broader air defense.
“In the Air 2030 upgrade program, they are looking for a joint air defense network. The F-35 in its quarterbacking role can provide valuable data when they are looking to upgrade their ground-based air defense system. ”
One might also question the value of stealth. As a former USAF F-16 pilot, Robinson said he “would be very happy if offensive air did not know where I was in my air defense role.”
But he realized that scanning Switzerland for air defense aircraft taking off from known locations was not a difficult task. “I understand,” said Robinson. “Some people don’t see stealth as a huge advantage. That may be true for the Swiss Air Force but it is an advantage. “
Mark Gunzinger, senior analyst at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies for the Air Force Association, said the F-35A’s stealth was “a threshold requirement for air forces concerned about trends in enemy counter-attack capability.”
Its air combat management capabilities have future utility too, Gunzinger insists. This could include acting as a battle manager for the drone team. He added that the F-35’s air defense capabilities meet or exceed other candidates.
“This is supported by the many reports that have been published on its performance during the Red Flag and other exercises as a counterweight and combat management aircraft. In essence, the 4th gen-plus candidate lacks the level of survivability and potential to develop the mission that a true 5th generation fighter can offer that the F-35 can offer.
All Air 2030 competitors are doing industry offsets. In fact, the Swiss government requires selected providers to place orders for the value of a Swiss company 60% of the contract value.
In Lockheed’s case, the sweetener includes the opportunity to produce about 400 canopies and transparencies (canopy and glass frames) for the F-35 domestically. Switzerland will become a European hub for such work and take up unspecified engine and airframe maintenance projects for its own operations and possibly others.
The company has worked with two Swiss optical suppliers and the additional opportunity could theoretically extend to other Swiss industries such as the distressed precision watch sector. Lockheed intends to define industrial cooperation further in the new year, according to Jim Robinson.
Switzerland will have access to the F-35 Information Center of Excellence, a domestic data center that allows Swiss companies to test their cyber capabilities in a secure environment and to view the information exchanged within the F-35’s network. Lockheed also offered, for an additional fee, Swiss defense contractor RUAG the opportunity to assemble four additional F-35s itself, building on the expertise for Swiss technicians who currently maintain the country’s Hornets.
The persuasion may not be enough to overcome promises from Airbus to assemble all 40 Eurofighter Typhoons with partner companies in Switzerland. Neighboring Typhoon operators such as Germany offer training opportunities away from noise-conscious Swiss in their own country. Boeing emphasized the cost advantages and structural continuity of the Super Hornet and reported, “Working with more than 100 current and new partners across Switzerland.”
Dassault has not disclosed its Rafale prices or offsets, but historically the close ties between France and Switzerland and the daily cross-border business show France can have an edge.
From a purely practical and expedient standpoint, Switzerland’s decision to use the F-35A seems like a long one. Concerns about costs and current reluctance about American policy and arms sales factor in Swiss decision making.
However, so is the knowledge that it will take Europe 15 years at most to field its own 5th Generation fighter. Flying American equipment, as the Swiss Air Force does, brings interoperability and diplomatic benefits.
Implementing a 5th generation stealth fighter for a straight forward counterattack defense mission may seem a contradiction in terms but Switzerland has a history of independent and often bizarre choices. They can make it again.