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When it comes to purchasing aircraft for the Air Force, the Swiss Confederation is often prepared to pay high prices. For example, it put almost the same amount on the table as Finland for its F / A-18 fighter jets, but received only half as many aircraft. However, international comparisons have a catch: the exact content of the entire package is almost always unknown.

This content was published on September 1st, 2020 - 11:00 am

My specialty is telling stories; to decipher what is happening in Switzerland and around the world with the help of data and statistics. I have been living in Switzerland as an expat for several years and previously worked as a multimedia journalist for Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS).

More about the author | French-speaking editorial team

On September 27, the Swiss voters will decide on the purchase of new fighter jetsExterner Link. The federal government provides a maximum of six billion francs for this. We have explained exactly what it is about in the following article:

Is the Swiss fighter aircraft fleet "oversized"? Is the cost of renewing a "luxury"? swissinfo.ch took a close look at the size of the fleet, fighter aircraft replacement projects and their budgets in other countries.

Does Switzerland have enough combat aircraft?

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According to the report World Air Forces 2020Externer Link, Switzerland has 46 active fighter jets. This makes it 43rd worldwide. If you only count the 30 F / A-18s (according to the army, the F-5 Tigers are only used to "relieve the F / A-18 of secondary tasks"), it falls to 51st place.

However, if the size of Swiss airspace is taken into account, Switzerland is one of the countries with the most aircraft in relation to its territory. For example, Switzerland surpasses Austria, Sweden and Finland - European countries that, like Switzerland, are neutral and partners in NATO without being a member.

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Too much for the opponents, necessary for supporters

Is that much? The interpretation of the numbers depends on which side is doing them. "The current Swiss Air Force is completely oversized by international standards (...)," writes the Social Democratic Party (SP) in a position paper on External Link. The left party is in favor of keeping the F / A-18 in service longer.

"Switzerland needs between eight and twelve light aircraft for the air police, but no more," says Lewin Lempert, political secretary of the group for a Switzerland without an army (GSoA). This anti-militarist movement had held the referendum against the purchase.

It is "deceptive" to say that Switzerland has too many planes, says Alexandre Vautravers, coordinator of the master’s program in security at the University of Geneva. The anti-militarists "lack information about strategic realities," the military specialist told swissinfo.ch.

One of the arguments put forward by the left is that states that do not have fighter jets would ensure the safety of their airspace with cheaper surveillance planes and helicopters. This is the case with Ireland and North Macedonia, for example. Or that they let NATO take over the security of their airspace. The three Baltic states and Iceland, for example, afford these services.

Vautravers replies that these countries usually do not have fighter jets due to a lack of funds. And that this recourse to a NATO mission to guarantee aviation security - "by no means free of charge" - requires something in return. For example, these countries would have to "send soldiers everywhere if necessary".

Does Switzerland pay more for its fighter jets?

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For the purchase of its 34 F / A-18s, Switzerland paid "adjusted for inflation a little more than 4.1 billion Swiss francs," says Armasuisse spokeswoman Jacqueline Stampfli. Armasuisse, the Federal Office for Armaments, estimates the operating costs to be twice the acquisition costs. From this it can be deduced that the fleet will have cost at least 12 billion over its 30-year lifespan.

In Finland, the decision to buy 64 F / A-18 fighter jets was made in 1992. It is the only one of five European countries that swissinfo.ch contacted that provided information. According to Colonel Juha-Pekka Keränen, director of the Finnish Air Force's fleet replacement program, the cost was around 3.1 billion euros.

Two upgrades were made for around one billion euros. In addition, there are operating and maintenance costs "of less than 200 million euros per year," he adds. This means that Finland paid almost the same price as Switzerland, but received twice as many planes.

Several cheaper shopping projects abroad

And in the future, too, Switzerland appears to be ready to invest more resources in renewing its fighter jet fleet than other countries. With the planned loan of six billion Swiss francs, it should be possible to buy 30 to 40 new aircraft. This at a unit price of 150 to 200 million francs. According to Stampfli from Armasuisse, the exact number depends on the model that is ultimately selected.

Several European countries announced that they would buy F-35s - one of the models that could possibly replace the Swiss fleet. But this at a lower price than the Swiss Confederation has calculated.

According to an article in the Neue Zürcher ZeitungExterner Link from the end of 2018, Belgium wants to buy 34 F-35s for around four billion euros (4.3 billion CHF, i.e. at a unit price of 126.5 million CHF). "According to the Belgian government, this so-called system price includes not only the aircraft itself, but also pilot training, logistics structures such as hangars and the maintenance of the fighter jets until 2030", according to the NZZ.

Also worth mentioning is Denmark, which, according to Defense NewsExterner Link, plans to buy 27 F-35s for CHF 2.9 billion (equivalent to CHF 107 million per jet). Poland signed a contract earlier this year to buy 32 F-35s at a unit price of $ 144 million (CHF 131 million), according to Der SpiegelExterner Link.

And Greece wants to buy 24 F-35s for three billion dollars (125 million per jet). According to Keep Talking GreeceExterner Link, the package price also includes the infrastructure, the armament of 82 F-16s and the possible purchase of warships and war material.

Finland has planned a larger procurement budget than Switzerland for replacing its fleet of 62 aircraft: According to Colonel Keränen, a maximum of ten billion euros (a little less than eleven billion francs) is earmarked for this.

The big unknown: the contents of the packages

However, military experts caution against drawing simplistic conclusions in their opinion. At a media conference this spring, Christian Catrina, the delegate of the Air 2030 project, stated that it was not appropriate to compare the acquisition costs in Switzerland with those in other countries.

When making a purchase, a country can opt for a whole package of additional services in addition to the aircraft: armament, logistics, specific equipment, training and assessment systems, etc. In some cases these make up a significant part of the final price. However, the detailed content of the packages mostly remains unknown. Because this information is as confidential as it is strategic.

A comparison with Finland makes this clear: According to the Finnish Air Force, the acquisition costs of the F / A-18 also included "spare parts, aircraft maintenance and operation manuals, software support, training and training equipment, supplies and project management".

"Finland, however, has to have its major periodic maintenance carried out in the USA because it does not have local capacities," says Vautravers. In contrast, Switzerland has decided to acquire all licenses so that the technology group Ruag can maintain the aircraft itself, says the defense specialist.

According to Vautravers, "it can be a much better investment in the long run" if buying licenses is not the most visible part of an acquisition. Because "what you don't pay for in licenses, you pay for somewhere else". The purchase package for the next Finnish fleet will also contain more services than the previous one.

Another factor that makes prices differ from one country to another is the political dimension, according to Vautravers: An exporting country can make a financial gesture or provide benefits in kind, depending on the importance it attaches to its relationship with the buyer country.

There are many points of contention that could play a role on September 27 if the electorate approves or rejects the purchase of new fighter jets for the Swiss Air Force.

What are other countries doing with their F / A-18 and Tiger F-5?

Switzerland bought 24 F / A-18s in 1997. Of these, 30 jets are still active today. Of the 100 Tiger F-5E and F-5F units purchased in 1978, only 26 are still in use today. According to Defense Minister Viola Amherd, the latter "only fly during the day and in good weather".

According to a count by World Air Forces 2020Externer Link, 18 countries are still using one or the other of these models:

  • Tiger F-5: With almost 200 machines, South Korea is the country where most of the F-5E / F are still in use. They were bought in 1974. However, South Korea wants to replace it with a model from its own production by 2026.

    By 2026, Taiwan wants to replace its F-5, which it has been producing under license since 1973, with the AT-5 model, also a fighter aircraft from its own productionExternal link.

    And in Brazil, according to specialized websites, the 47 F-5EM and F-5FM purchased in 1975 are to be phased out over the next few years in favor of the Gripen E (F-39).

  • F / A-18 Hornet: In Finland they entered service between 1995 and 2000. The country is also in the process of replacing its fleet within ten yearsExternal link. Five aircraft are in the race: Eurofighter, Rafale, F / A-18 Super Hornet, F-35A (these four are in the final selection in Switzerland) and Gripen E / F.

    The reasons for decommissioning the F / A-18 include "the commissioning of highly developed weapon systems in the neighboring regions in the 2020s", the "structural fatigue" of the aircraft and the ongoing decommissioning of the F / A in the USA. 18 fleet.

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(Translation from French: Christian Raaflaub)