In two weeks time, the Swiss people will have their say in a referendum about the purchase of 22 Saab JAS 39 Gripen-E/F fighter aircraft, and according to all sources it will be a close call between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. The 18 May vote will be closely watched by the Swiss Federal Council in Bern, and of course by Saab in its headquarters in Linköping, Sweden.
Update 9 May: latest poll shows 39% against 32% yes. Rest is undecided.
The question is whether the silent Swiss majority has or hasn’t forgotten about a recent national Swiss embarrassment or whether it does or doesn’t realize how suited Saab Gripen is to traditional Swiss defense needs. Without much notice outside the Alps and Sweden, the Swiss media have been gone full out reporting on the referendum, saying the outcome seems to doom the Gripen.
A mid-April poll concluded 52 percent of the Swiss people are against the US$ 3.4 billion deal for 22 Gripens, and 42 percent are in favour. Both sides have been getting equal attention, also by making good use of social media. There was also misuse, as fake Twitter accounts were created in the name of both prime minister Ueli Maurer, who is also Minister of Defense, and the Swiss army chief André Blattman. The latter promised ‘a flight in a Gripen’, with the lucky winner to be drawn out of all those who retweeted his message in favour of the Gripen. The fake account was quickly dealt with.
The Gripen debate has been ongoing for years. The last of 110 Northrop F-5E/F Tigers ordered in the seventies and eighties will say their farewell to the Alps in 2016, with dozens already sold to the US Navy and US Marines, and leaving Swiss air defence in the hands of 32 Boeing F/A-18C and D Hornets. The other competitor for the F-5 replacement was Dassault’s Rafale, but Gripen was finally selected last year as being the most cost effective option. Following that announcement, opponents successfully gathered 100,0000 autographs in order to hold a national referendum on the purchase, saying the current economic climate doesn’t allow the purchase.
That very same opponents suffered a blow on 17 February, as an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 made an unscheduled stop in Geneva – unscheduled because it was actually hijacked by its own, asylum seeking co-pilot. Escorting the hijacked airliner were not Swiss Hornets, but Italian Eurofighters and French Mirages. It was an international and much made fun of embarrassment for the Swiss, albeit also a surprisingly warm welcome one for the Swiss Air Force. This was their chance to prove that capabilities were in need of improvement, and they seized it.
Following a storm of criticism, PM and defense minister Maurer was quick to announce a full 24/7 fighter interception capability in 2020 at the earliest, while at the same time emphasizing the urgency of buying those 22 Saab fighters. “The Gripens will not only make our air policing task better and more secure, they will enable us to scramble fighters more quickly and to keep two to four aircraft airborne at all times”, Maurer said.
But, that was three months ago and the collective memory has maybe clouded since. In parliament, opposing parties accused the Federal Council of spreading fear in order to secure a ‘yes’ for Gripen. Comparisons are made with neighbouring Austria, with opponents questioning why that similarly sized country can do with just 15 Eurofighter Typhoons, whereas Switzerland apparently needs 32 F/A-18 Hornets plus 22 Saab Gripens. The question is justified, and raises the question if there’s a market for 32 second hand, well looked after F/A-18 Hornets. Maybe 22 Gripens will do: the Czech Air Force maintains a 24/7 quick reaction alert with (QRA) just 14 Gripens at its disposal.
The pro-Gripen lobby is intense, with leaked documents showing what the Swedish embassy is doing to get voters on the Gripen side. Early April, Swiss Pilatus Aircraft and
Saab signed a Memorandum of Understanding which addresses the offset obligations of Saab related to the Gripen purchase. Swedish offsets should create many hundreds of Swiss jobs, those in favour say.
Also, since September 2013, a Swiss pilot is flying Gripens with Swedish Air Force F7 Wing at Såtenäs. It’s hand on experience with a machine that was designed with the very similar Swedish and Swiss defence doctrine in mind; the tactical doctrine of flying from dispersed, well hidden airfields with line maintenance being done on the spot. It was the doctrine the Swiss lived by for decades, and it’s a doctrine easily remembered by the caverns (underground hangars) at various airbases still in use, such as Meiringen, Payerne and Alpnach.
The small sized Saab Gripen suits that doctrine unlike any other aircraft, and the Swedish, Thai, Hungary, South African and Czech Air Forces will testify to that. As Czech Air Force Gripen pilot major Jaroslav Tomaňa told AIRheads↑Fly earlier this year: “If along the way we have to land somewhere, it’s no problem because our pilots know how to cross service their own aircraft. It’s a perfect example of the flexibility of the Saab Gripen.” Maybe even the Força Aérea Brasileira will state the same, after its 2013 purchase announcement of 36 Gripen-Es and the lease of Gripen-C/Ds.
And finally, there’s the edgy situation with Russia. In Sweden, they’re counting on the turmoil Vladimir Putin has created, to change the odds in favour of Gripen in Switzerland. Not a strange thought actually, since something very similar happened in Sweden also, where government decided on buying ten extra Next Generation Gripens to counter a possible Russian threat. It’s an argument that probably won’t sit all that bad with the silent majority in Switzerland, a silent majority that is still pondering a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ to 22 Saab Gripens in Swiss service, but historically values its independence and freedom.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest