On September 27, 2020, Switzerland held a referendum on whether it should acquire or not new fighter jets. 50.1% of voters have voted “yes” to the procurement of new aircraft for the Swiss Air Force.
8,670 ‒ that is how many voters it took to tilt the balance in favor of the new procurement. The vote clearly divided the country in two, with the German-speaking cantons generally approving the project while the French-speaking ones opposed it.
Such a strong opposition surprised even the opponents to the project. In August 2020, polls showed that 58% of voters were in favor of procurement. “We thought we were doing 40-45%, but not 50%,” commented Josef Lang, one of the leaders of the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSsA), the antimilitarist association that initiated the referendum. “This shows that a large part of the Swiss population does not believe that combat planes are a real answer to dangers.”
A competition will now be held to replace the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornets and the few remaining Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II antiques that are still assigned to secondary tasks. Three contenders are currently in the race: the Dassault Rafale, the Lockheed Martin F-35, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Saab Gripen E/F was excluded as it will not be operational before 2023. New jets are to be delivered by 2025.
The political parties that campaigned against the procurement have already voiced their opposition to the choice of Lockheed Martin. “It is excluded to buy the American F-35s, which are the most expensive,” said Roger Nordmann, the leader of the Socialist group in the Federal Assembly. Throughout the campaign, some political representatives argued that the M-346, a trainer jet produced by Leonardo, would offer “sufficient performance for the work of the Swiss air police.”
However, the Federal Department of Defense clarified the need for higher-performing fighter jets. “In these times of heightened tension, the Swiss Air Force must be able to maintain air sovereignty for weeks or even months in order to prevent unauthorized use of Swiss airspace,” it reminded. “Our old planes need to be replaced — otherwise, the Swiss airspace will be unprotected from 2030.”