Friday, May 16, 2014

Swiss Air Force Seeks Sky Patrols Outside Office Hours; Country to Vote on Purchase of Gripen Fighter Jets

The Wall Street Journal
By John Letzing

May 16, 2014 11:33 a.m. ET

PAYERNE AIR BASE, Switzerland—Switzerland's air force is pitching an upgrade it says could enable it to do something taken for granted in other countries: Actively patrol its own skies after dark and on weekends.

The country's military chief, Ueli Maurer, has been stumping for a plan to pay 3.1 billion Swiss francs ($3.5 billion) for 22 new Gripen fighter jets from Saab AB. But the proposal has run into stiff opposition, even in a country that prides itself on its independence and military strength.

Opponents call the purchase a waste of money. Supporters counter that most of the Swiss air forces's aging jet fleet isn't up to the task of full-time defense, and that the military shouldn't have to rely on its neighbors when it needs help on nights, weekends and at lunchtime.

Pierre de Goumoëns, a Swiss Air Force pilot who attended a recent media event featuring Mr. Maurer, likened the country's inability to patrol its airspace around the clock to giving up sovereignty. "You have to expect the unexpected," he said.

The Swiss people will have their say in a referendum on Sunday. Polls indicate voters will likely reject the purchase of the new jets. Though the "yes" camp has grown slightly in recent weeks, the military's backup plan if it fails remains unclear.

The air force generally limits patrols of Swiss skies to between 8 a.m. and about 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with an hour-and-a-half break for lunch. That schedule became widespread public knowledge when French military jets had to be called in early one morning in February to escort an Ethiopian Air jetliner that had been hijacked to Switzerland by its co-pilot.

"The situation in Switzerland is quite peculiar," said David Cenciotti, who maintains the Aviationist blog. The country's neighbors have their own so-called quick reaction alert services, Mr. Cenciotti noted, while smaller European nations can rely on NATO assistance. Switzerland, always doggedly independent, isn't a NATO member.

The military says the Gripen purchase could make 24-7 patrols possible. Switzerland's current fleet is made up of 54 F-5 Tiger jets from Northrop Grumman Corp., and 32 F/A-18 jets built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., which has since been bought by Boeing.

The F-5s are equipped with radar and weapons systems built in the 1970s that are useless during bad weather and in the dark, according to Swiss Air Force spokesman Laurent Savary. The aging jets are scheduled to be retired in 2016.

Opponents of the Gripen purchase say the F/A-18 jets, which went into service in the 1990s, should be sufficient to patrol the skies. "Especially since we are surrounded by friends," said Evi Allemann, a member of Swiss parliament representing the Social Democratic Party.

If Switzerland really wants full-time air patrols, opponents say, the military should focus on investing in the personnel needed to man the existing jet fleet for longer periods.

Ms. Allemann and others say the Gripen jets would end up costing more than $10 billion over their lifetime, money better spent on public transportation and education.

Friction over the jet purchase has fueled a broader debate about how well armed this small, neutral country in the heart of Europe should be. Switzerland maintains mandatory conscription, and has a relatively large standing army for a peaceful country of just eight million people. However, the size of that army is being cut to 100,000 by 2016, less than a sixth of what it was as recently as 1990.

Earlier this year, public pressure in Switzerland forced Saab, the Swedish defense manufacturer, to request the return of 200,000 Swiss francs it had given to the Association for a Safe Switzerland, which advocates for the Gripen purchase.

"When it became a debate about what's proper, we said then we can't be a part of the financing and took the money back," said Saab spokesman Sebastian Carlsson.

More recently, Mr. Maurer got into a testy exchange with a moderator on Swiss public television about that station's news coverage of the possible jet fleet upgrade, an event that turned heads in this consensus-driven culture.

The most recent poll conducted by gfs.bern showed 44% expressing favor of approving the Gripen purchase, and 51% opposed. 5% said they were undecided.