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June 30, 2021
Switzerland Chooses F-35 As Its Next Fighter Jet

In something of a surprise result, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter has won the competition to provide the Swiss Air Force with its next fighter jet. The fifth-generation fighter fought off competition from the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, and Eurofighter Typhoon.

After what was described as a “comprehensive technical evaluation,” Switzerland’s Federal Council announced today that it planned to recommend to the country’s parliament that it procure 36 F-35As as part of the Air2030 program. The package also includes five Patriot air defense systems from Raytheon, which will provide the Alpine nation with a new long-range ground-based air defense capability. The Patriot was selected in favor of the rival SAMP/T offered by France’s Eurosam. 

U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Justine Rho
Three Swiss Air Force F/A-18Cs fly alongside a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker after aerial refueling during a training mission over Germany.

“An evaluation has revealed that these two systems [F-3A5 and Patriot] offer the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost,” the Federal Council explained in a statement. “The Federal Council is confident that these two systems are the most suitable for protecting the Swiss population from air threats in the future.”

The Air2030 program will replace the Swiss Air Force’s existing fleet of 30 ‘legacy’ F/A-18C/D Hornets, scheduled to be withdrawn in 2030, as well as its aging F-5E/F Tiger II jets. The new F-35As are expected to arrive in the country from 2025.

The F-35A had only recently emerged as the favorite for the Swiss deal, with reports in the local media that the stealth fighter had performed best out of the candidates during the in-country evaluation. Citing three anonymous sources, Swiss broadcaster SRF revealed last Monday that the Joint Strike Fighter was the preferred option.

“According to insiders, Switzerland can buy a larger number of F-35s with the budgeted 6 billion Swiss francs [$6.53 billion] than would be the case with the three competitors,” SRF
reported. “The F-35’s simulator could also be an asset: it would allow the F-35 to carry out significantly more virtual training missions than the competition,” the broadcaster added.

The Federal Council confirmed today that all four fighter jet candidates had met the air force’s requirements. However, the F-35 (like the Patriot) came out as not only the most effective, but also the lowest-cost option.

Lockheed Martin
An F-35A from Hill Air Force Base Utah, takes off during the evaluation in Switzerland in 2019.

“With 336 points, [the F-35A] showed the highest overall benefit and was the clear winner with a lead of 95 points or more over the other candidates,” the council’s report stated, although it didn’t provide points for the other fighters in the competition. Also absent was any kind of detailed breakdown as to how that score was determined.

Neverthess, the Lightning II came out top in three of the four main criteria evaluated, which were effectiveness, product support, cooperation, and offsets.

The Federal Council described the stealth jet as having a “marked technological advantage over the other candidates,” pointing to its “entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace.”

“In addition, because the F-35A is comparatively easy to operate and is able to provide information superiority, it requires less training and has a better ratio of flight to simulator hours,” the report continues. “Because of this, the F-35A requires about 20% fewer flight hours than other candidates, and about 50% fewer take-offs and landings than the air force’s current jet aircraft, which the F-35A will be replacing.

U.S. Air Force
An airman practices on an F-35 full mission simulator at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The F-35A was also judged better able to maintain its technological edge over the planned 30-year service life, compared to its rivals.

In the product support category, the Swiss evaluation judged the F-35A best on account of its “efficient operation and maintenance, modern training design, and the high security of supply throughout its service life.” Part of this advantage comes from the F-35 already being established with different air forces in Europe and having been built in greater numbers than the other competitors.

“The F-35A was also the best performer in terms of cooperation, offering extensive opportunities for operational collaboration and broad access to data and technical resources,” the analysis added.

The one category where the F-35A failed to come out on top was direct offset, although all entrants were required to provide offsets worth 60 percent of the order value within four years of the final delivery. In the past, as seen in the slide below, Lockheed Martin offered Switzerland the option to undertake “limited assembly” of four F-35s locally, but it’s not clear if this has been taken up.

Lockheed Martin

That the F-35A might win the evaluation based on its technical attributes is perhaps not so surprising; after all, it was the only fifth-generation stealth jet in the running. What might raise more eyebrows is the fact that it scored highest on financial terms, too.

According to the Federal Council’s findings, the fleet of 36 F-35As was priced at around $5.48 billion, well within the $6.53-billion price cap.

Although the unit prices of all variants of the F-35 have been steadily decreasing, the cost of actually sustaining the jets once in service has remained a cause for concern. In 2019, for example, the U.S. military assessed it would cost $1.196 trillion just to operate and maintain its full planned fleets of F-35s, including B and C versions, across the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy through 2070. These costs have led even the U.S. Air Force to look at other options to more F-35s, while both that service and the United Kingdom are weighing up whether the cost of upgrading early-model F-35s is worth the investment in the Block 4 upgrade package for the jet.

Only recently, U.S. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith slammed Lockheed Martin over the lifecycle costs of the F-35. “There’s no question that everyone involved — certainly Lockheed Martin ― could be doing a better job on getting sustainment costs down,” Smith told the Defense Writer’s Group. He pointed to operating costs as high as $38,000 an hour, according to Defense News.

Lockheed Martin
F-35s during the Swiss flight evaluations, June 2019.

Furthermore, the timeline for the Block 4 upgrade remains uncertain and could well come after the Swiss begin receiving their jets, which would require them to either upgrade or decide against getting that capability boost.

While Switzerland is a wealthy country, it’s also a small one, and it seems remarkable that keeping a relatively small fleet of F-35As in service will prove cheaper than an alternative fourth-generation jet.

However, the Federal Council indicates that the F-35A also has the lowest operating costs of all of the candidates, with procurement plus sustainment amounting to around $18.37 billion over 30 years — this is approximately $2.16 billion cheaper than the next lowest-cost offer, which has not been disclosed. 

We do know, however, that based on U.S. Government Accountability Office figures, the F-35A is significantly more expensive to operate than the F/A-18E/F — at least, within the U.S. Department of Defense ecosystem. Furthermore, since Switzerland is already an established Hornet operator, introducing the Super Hornet would entail certain advantages in terms of commonality within infrastructure and especially training. The considerable infrastructure costs of the F-35A are well known and it’s so far not clear if the Swiss will be able to continue to have two main operating bases for their frontline fighters, and to what degree they will be able to use their wartime cavern facility at Meiringen.

GAO

In the Joint Strike Fighter program specifically, there has been a push to develop supporting infrastructure in Europe to help sustain F-35 fleets in that region. Switzerland might be able to leverage that to help reduce costs to some degree, while the fact they appear to be due to get some kind of domestic depot maintenance capability is also significant for such a small country.

In the past, there have been criticisms that the F-35 is potentially vulnerable in terms of cybersecurity and there have been concerns around data autonomy, too, and the ability for operators to access critical information and make their own changes to aircraft software, for example, without having to consult the manufacturer and the wider U.S. defense enterprise. The Swiss evaluation rejects these concerns, stating that all four candidates “were able to guarantee data autonomy.” In the case of the F-35, these may refer to the “firewall” that Italy and some other customers have received. On the other hand, the F-35 is still heavily intertwined with a cloud computing backend that has been repeatedly cited as a key factor in higher than expected sustainment costs, and a replacement for it remains under development.

Lockheed Martin

As for the F-35, “the security of its computer architecture and its cyber protection measures combine to ensure an especially high level of cybersecurity,” according to the report. “With the F-35A, Switzerland controls which information to exchange with other air forces via datalink, and what logistics information to report back to the manufacturer,” the Federal Council states, noting that maintenance will be handled in-country by the Swiss Air Force and RUAG Switzerland.

Then there is the question of whether Switzerland needs a fighter as sophisticated as the F-35. The Federal Council points to its ability to “ensure information superiority; this means pilots benefit from a higher situational awareness in all task areas when compared with the other candidates,” before noting that “this is especially true for day-to-day air policing.” That mission, after all, is the primary one flown by Swiss Air Force fighters, but the F-35 is a low-observable jet optimized for strike missions against sophisticated enemies. The council says that the jet’s “high survivability is a great advantage for the Swiss Air Force,” although it’s hard to see how this would have a significant benefit for air policing missions.

There are indications, however, that at least some limited air-to-ground capability might be part of the Swiss F-35 plans. When the U.S. State Department approved a possible Foreign Military Sale of 40 F-35As and related equipment to Swizterland last year, the official statement noted that “the proposed sale will […] enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defense capability.”

Among the munitions listed in the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notification were the GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II), also known as the StormBreaker.

The decision in favor of the F-35 is also in stark contrast to Switzerland’s previous, abortive fighter competition. That was for the partial replacement of the F-5 fleet and the Saab Gripen E/Fwas chosen, with a decision to buy 22 examples, before the entire project was rejected by a referendum.

Saab
A Saab Gripen E/F demonstrator aircraft flies in the Swiss Alps.

In an unusual quirk of Swiss procurement, the fighter purchase first had to win the backing of the country’s voters, who went to the polls in a referendum last September 27. The electorate voted narrowly in favor of the new fighter, clearing the government to spend a maximum of $6.53 billion on the jets.

There could still be other opposition to the fighter purchase, however, with SRF reporting that at least some of the Cabinet members would prefer a European fighter, and critics have suggested another referendum to potentially overturn the decision to buy American.

Regardless of how the Swiss came to their conclusions in the evaluation, and whether the F-35 represents the right choice for the country’s relatively modest requirements, it is a significant victory for the Joint Strike Fighter program and one that should provide more momentum as it takes on other competitions. In particular, it would seem the odds of the F-35 going on to win Finland’s fighter procurement battle must now have narrowed considerably.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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