Outcome of multi-billion fighter jet purchase remains unclear

Outcome of multi-billion fighter jet purchase remains unclear

Too old for duty: a Swiss F/A18 Hornet. Keystone / Dominic Favre

Initial trends after voting ended on Sunday suggest the vote will go right down to the wire. Pollsters say it’s tied at 50-50, with final results expected later this afternoon.

This content was published on September 27, 2020 – 13:25

It’s the 24th time since 1977 that a ballot on national security has come up in neutral Switzerland, and the second time in six years voters have decided on new jets.

What’s at stake is a CHF6 billion ($6.49 billion) envelope, proposed by the government, to buy a fleet that would come into service by 2030. The current F-5 Tigers and F/A-18 jets, which the army says are getting too old for the job, will be phased out.

Models from four manufacturers are in the running to land the contract, which would be awarded later by the government: the Lockheed-Martin F-35, Boeing’s Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, and Airbus’s Eurofighter Typhoon.

As part of the package, Swiss industry is to benefit from a so-called offset agreement – a compensatory system obliging the company involved in the deal to place orders with Swiss firms worth 60% of the contract value.

New context

As opposed to the narrow rejection in 2014 of a CHF3 billion purchase of Swedish Gripen jets, this time polls have been pointing to success.

Analysts from the GfS Bern research institute, in a report two weeks ago, said that in 2014 the issue was seen as less pressing, while this time supporters argued that rejection would leave the country unable to defend its skies by 2030.

The army – an important institution of non-NATO member Switzerland – would thus be unable to fulfil its mandate of protecting the country, said these supporters, who include the government and a majority of parliament.

In practice, Switzerland has few enemies and has fought no wars in centuries. But the government argued that the air force is vital for remaining credibly independent and sovereign, even if an all-out aerial attack is improbable.

It also raised terrorism and new geopolitical uncertainties. “Europe and the world have become more unstable,” and the army needs to be ready to face any unknown threats that come up in the next 30 to 40 years, the government wrote in the official vote booklet.

Blank cheque

Opponents, mainly left-wing parties and anti-army groups, said the CHF6 billion amounted to a “blank cheque” that would be better spent on climate protection or health. Referring to the Covid-19 crisis, they reckoned “fighter jets are useless against a pandemic”.

However, they shied away from painting their cause as anti-army generally. Their main argument is that air policing tasks could be done by cheaper, lighter, and more sustainable planes, while the bigger tasks of combat and air defence are in any case illusory.

“Who wants to attack Switzerland?” said Green Party member of the opposition committee Fabian Fivaz.

As for the price tag, they also claimed that when maintenance, upgrades, and ancillary costs are factored in, the jets would cost CHF24 billion rather than CHF6 billion.

This amounts to buying “luxury jets” rather than cheaper but effective models: “It would be better to have a Fiat than a Maserati,” said Social Democrat parliamentarian Priska Seiler Graf.

However, despite picking up support particularly among younger, urban and female voters, the “no” camp struggled to convince more broadly, the GfS Bern polling institute says.

Future of the air force

That a vote took place at all is down to these opponents, who had pledged to force a referendum should the purchase be approved by politicians.

After parliament in Bern pushed through the government-backed plans last December, the pacifist Group for a Switzerland without an Army took just a few months to gather the necessary 50,000 signatures for a referendum, which they handed in in June.

It’s unclear what would happen if the polls are proved wrong and the jets are rejected. Defence Minister Viola Amherd has said that with Swiss skies then left undefended, a debate on the future of the air force would be necessary.

As for the CHF6 billion, since it is part of the army’s “ordinary budget” in any case, it would be re-allocated internally rather than shifted to another government department, she said.

Votes September 27, 2020

Besides the vote on a multi-billion credit for new fighter aircraft there are four other issues on the national ballot papers on September 27:

Voters also decide on a proposal to scrap a deal with the EU on immigration, a proposal for a statutory two-week paternity leave, tax breaks for families with children as well as a reform of the hunting law.

It is the second set of nationwide votes this year as a scheduled ballot in May was cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.

About 5.4 Swiss citizens, including registered expatriate Swiss, are eligible to take part in the votes.

There are also numerous ballots at cantonal and local levels on September 27.

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