The French Rafale fighter jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, appears increasingly likely to be the winner of the Swiss air force’s acquisition process, according to media reports. If the reports are proven to be correct, the huge military procurement will have reached a fairly controversial conclusion.
The process started as far back as 2008, and had gone through a number of scandals, delays and political interference. The fact that during a debate in the Swiss National Council this week the Rafale was brought up as a point of reference, plus the signing of a contract worth 155 million francs for the French Thales manufactured SkyView aerial surveillance system, both point towards the Rafale as the most likely winner of the contest. Three other manufacturers have also submitted their products for consideration: Eurofighter Typhoon form European Airbus, the F/A-18 Super Hornet from Boeing and the F-35 Lightning II made by Lockheed-Martin.
The twist in the story is that in 2014, the ministry of defense has already selected the Swedish Saab Gripens as the air force’s new fighter jet, yet the Greens, Socialists, and pacifist NGOs have demanded a referendum in order to decide the fate of the new jets. In their view, the Gripens were “luxury jets” that their country could not afford. Furthermore, they have raised environmental concerns with regards to the aircraft. As a result, the Swiss have voted for the cancellation of the jets by a narrow margin, leading to a protracted new process that is nearing its conclusion only now.
An official announcement is expected to be made on June 23, and there are fears that the criteria for selecting the future aircraft for the Swiss Air Force have been overwhelmingly of a political and ideological nature, rather than based on the needs of the country’s defense. The Greens, together with the Swiss Labour Party, have threatened to withdraw their support from the acquisition process and to call another referendum on the matter in case an American manufactured jet is selected.
It is doubtful though that by only supporting the French jet that the Greens and the left would have achieved their environmental and cost-saving goals. The government had reserved 6 billion francs for the purchase of 36 to 40 aircraft. Yet, the acquisition costs and flying hours of a Rafale are roughly double that of a Saab Gripen fighter. They are reportedly more expensive than the stealth American F-35, which is the only available fifth generation military fighter jet on the market. Although very capable, the Rafales are regarded as 4+ generation, and although they have a payload and dogfight capabilities superior to the F-35, they have no stealth characteristics.
The genuine nature of the left’s environmental concerns are also in serious doubt, since the original choice, the Gripen is a single-engine aircraft that is well suited for the needs of a landlocked, mid-sized country. The Rafale, however, is twin-engine, and although it can hold a larger payload, it will no doubt produce more emissions than a single-engine aircraft.
As far as the Swiss are concerned, experts have regarded the F/A-18 Super Hornet as the “logical” choice for their country, since they already have its predecessor, the F/A-18 Hornet in their inventory since the 1990s. This would have made the transition for pilots and support crews to the new aircraft much easier, and cheaper. Furthermore, the F/A-18 was built in Switzerland’s Emmen manufacturing facility under license from Boeing, something that could have been a part of a new contract as well.
Apart from the French navy and air force, Dassault has orders for their Rafale from India, Egypt, Qatar and Greece. This year, Croatia has also announced their intention to purchase refurbished Rafales from the French air force.