The political implications of Switzerland’s F-35 acquisition

The political implications of Switzerland’s F-35 acquisition

Switzerland has finally selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35A for its Air Force 2030 program. The deal, with 36 aircraft, is expected to be worth $6.5 billion. Critics have argued that the F-35, with its sophisticated stealth and networking capabilities, is too much for a small country like Switzerland that requires only an air-policing aircraft. The decision to select the F-35 exemplifies how much politics are involved in purchasing military hardware worth billions of dollars.

A complex acquisition process coupled with a troubled history 

Switzerland has a troubled history with purchasing fighter jets, in addition to a heavily politicized acquisition process. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Switzerland to use referendums – a form of direct democracy in Switzerland – as a tool to get the population’s buy-in in a significant multibillion-dollar acquisition process. 

This is not the first time referendums are used in the process of acquiring military jets. Back in 2011, the fighter jet Gripen, manufactured by Saab, won the competition to replace the Swiss Air Force’s F-18. But three years later, the acquisition process was stopped when the Swiss voters narrowly rejected a proposal to free up funds, delivering a massive blow to the Swedish manufacturing group. 

Consequently, the contract was canceled, and a new bid was put in place as well as a new referendum ahead of the new selection. In 2020, by a razor-thin majority of 50.1%, Swiss voters approved the government plan to spend $6.5 billion on a new fighter aircraft. Now that the Federation Council, Switzerland’s executive branch, has selected the winner, the final milestone to reach will be securing approval from the Parliament for the purchase. That said, large acquisition deals in Switzerland are highly politicized and therefore vulnerable to political headwinds.

A major win for the F-35 and the United States 

This strategic win for Lockheed Martin will further cement its footprint in Europe, already having many operators throughout the continent, including in Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Britain. The Swiss win will also significantly improve its chances to win the upcoming bid in Finland, almost twice the size of the Swiss one, estimated at $12 billion with more than 60 F/A-18C/D Hornets to be replaced, further strengthening US influence in the region. After what was described as a ‘comprehensive technical evaluation,’ Switzerland’s Federation Council has selected the F-35 on the basis that it offers ‘the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost.’ According to aerospace and defense expert Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group, this is a solid win for Lockheed Martin. 

It is important to note that the F-35 decision is in stark contrast with the previous decision to acquire the Gripen, which is a non-stealth fourth-generation fighter. The F-35 was the only fifth-generation aircraft in the competition capable of offering stealth, excellent sensor, and networking capabilities. However, considering the air policing requirements and the geopolitical environment of Switzerland, a fifth-generation fighter aircraft with such capabilities could be considered overkill

If the F-35 is indeed an overkill for Switzerland from operational and technical standpoints, then what other motivations could have led the Federation Council to go ahead with such a controversial decision? The answer lies in the political realm, where strategic and military relationships are essential when it comes to the acquisition of a fighter jet.

Fighter jet sale: a political choice

Large fighter jet competitions are often related to politics and subject to intense lobbying efforts. Switzerland was no exception. In an effort to promote American technology, President Biden met with his Swiss counterpart during the G7 summit. 

In addition to the fighter jet deal, the Federation Council has also selected another American firm, Raytheon Technologies, to provide 5 Patriot ground-based air-defense systems worth about $2.16 billion. Coupled with the F-35 deal, the Patriot system represents a significant win for the U.S. defense industrial base.

The F-35 and Patriot selections arguably typify the state of EU-Swiss relations. Those deals represent a major shift for Switzerland which seeks stronger relationships with Washington at a time when EU-Swiss relations have sunk to its lowest point since 1992, after the collapse of negotiations related to a framework agreement

Interoperability and NATO

A critical political and strategic factor to consider is the interoperability of weapon systems within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Switzerland is not a member of the Alliance, the Swiss F-35 and Patriot deals would expand the reach of NATO and its ability to share data, engage in secure communication and increase interoperability capabilities between the U.S. and other U.S.-allied European assets. Thus, beyond the interoperability aspect of those deals, acquiring the F-35 does bring diplomatic benefits and strengthen relationships with European allies and the United States.

The F-35 is at the core of NATO air power strategy. The organization plans to field 450 F-35s in Europe by 2030. The aircraft’s growing presence in Europe is also seen as a means to bolster partnerships with US allies at a time when NATO is becoming more wary of China. While NATO remains focused on traditional adversaries such as Russia, it has recently developed a more critical approach towards China by stating that the nation’s ‘ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges.’

Thus, the Swiss F-35 acquisition could also be interpreted as a measure to address the changing threat landscape in which U.S. and NATO strategic competitors such as China and Russia are fielding fifth generation fighter platforms. Despite having maintained a neutral stance since 1815, these acquisitions highlight a change in the Swiss strategic posture which is more cognizant of those existing and emerging threats, possibly seeking to foster a military partnership with the U.S. in an era of great power rivalry.

Foreign policy in Action?

In addition, the F-35 sales through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) framework are largely seen as a political instrument by Washington to deepen its relationships and exert stronger influence in areas of the world where the U.S. is heavily invested. The F-35, initially developed to replace aging F-16s bought during the Cold War, is poised to become one of America’s biggest exports. By strengthening military interoperability with U.S. allies across the globe and elevating their air power capabilities, the F-35 is instrumental to America’s containment military strategy of China. Furthermore, some experts argue that the F-35 program acts as America’s own Belt and Road Initiative, at least from a strategic and military standpoint. It provides a network and a platform acting as “a generator of wealth and peaceful co-existence on a global scale.” 

To conclude, the F-35 deal arguably represents a strategic shift for Switzerland by rebalancing their military and strategic relationships away from the EU and towards the United States. The F-35, as a tool of foreign policy, will be instrumental in strengthening relations between Switzerland and the U.S. and by enhancing NATO’s air power to counter challenges poised not only by Russia but China as well. Moving forward, it would be wise to keep a close eye on those dynamic relationships in Europe as the strategic competition between the U.S. and China intensifies.


Categories: Europe, Security

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