FILE PHOTO: Two F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets of the Swiss Air Force take off at the Swiss Army base in Payerne, Switzerland, August 25, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
By John Revill and Tim Hepher
ZURICH (Reuters) -Switzerland has chosen Lockheed Martin's F-35A Lightning II as its next-generation fighter plane, the government said on Wednesday, a move that will likely trigger another hotly-disputed referendum over the plan. Neutral Switzerland will buy 36 F-35As after an evaluation found it had "the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost," the government said.
The decision is bound to outrage anti-armaments campaigners and left wing parties who will now launch a campaign for a national referendum on the issue, the third Swiss vote on buying fighter jets.
Voters seven years ago rejected the purchase of Gripen jets from Sweden's Saab, while the 6 billion Swiss franc ($6.5 billion) funding, which led to the decision to buy the F-35As, was only narrowly approved in a vote last year.
Many oppose the idea, saying Switzerland doesn't need cutting-edge warplanes to its defend Alpine territory which a supersonic jet can cross in 10 minutes.
"The American jets are simply too expensive," said Priska Seiler Graf, a member of parliament for the left-leaning Social Democrats (SP).
"It's not just about buying them, but the upkeep and operating costs will be massive over time," she added. "We should seek a European solution ... we don’t want to be dependent on the United States."
The F35-A beat bids from Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Rafale from France's Dassault and the four-nation Eurofighter built by Germany and Spain backed Airbus, Italy's Leonardo and Britain's BAE Systems. The government also decided to buy the Patriot surface-to-air missile system from U.S. manufacturer Raytheon, choosing it over an offer from Franco-Italian group Eurosam, as it looked to update its air defences. "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 government said in a statement. The F-35A "achieved the best result because it has a marked technological advantage over the other candidates", it said. The total costs for the F-35As, at 15.5 billion francs, was 2 billion francs cheaper than the next lowest bidder, the government said, when it came to buying and operating the aircraft over their 30 year life-span. The Swiss decision was closely watched as the first of three face-offs ahead of aircraft procurement decisions in Finland and Canada.
U.S. President Joe Biden had lobbied for American companies when meeting his Swiss counterpart while in Geneva for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
There was speculation the Swiss could split the fighter and air defence deals between continents, but by doubling down on U.S. suppliers the government is likely to antagonise the 49.8% of Swiss voters who opposed the funding last year.
Anti-arms campaigners say Switzerland, which last fought a foreign war more than 200 years ago and has no discernable enemies, does not need cutting-edge fighters..
But supporters have said Switzerland needs to be able to protect itself without relying on others.
Lawmaker Seiler Graf said the SP and the Green parties in parliament would oppose the purchase of American jets, and would easily gather the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a vote.
"We were very close to winning last September in the vote on the jets, and I think we will have a very good chance now.”