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Swiss Gripen

On 18 May 2014 Swiss voters rejected a 3.1 billion- franc ($3.5 billion) order for Gripen fighter jets, a setback to Swedish defense company Saab AB. The 22-plane contract, which Switzerland awarded 2 1/2 years earlier, was opposed by 53.4 percent of voters. Opponents argued that the planes would cost 10 billion francs over their lifetime, money that could be spent elsewhere. The plane’s supporters said neutral Switzerland needs the Gripen to defend its airspace.

On 25 August 2010 the Federal Council (the Swiss government) decided not to buy any new fighter aircraft during the next few years. But on 30 November 2011 the Swiss government decided to purchase 22 Gripens as its future multirole fighter aircraft for the Swiss Air Force. The Gripen program will create a long-term partnership between Switzerland and Sweden. Saab assured Switzerland a long-term strategic industrial co-operation aimed at creating sustainable high tech jobs, transferring technology and generating export business.

The decision, based on the recommendation of Defence Minister Ueli Maurer, drew fire in the newspapers. One of the main criticisms is that the jet, which is still a prototype, might not get enough takers to ensure that it and its parts are actually available when needed. "One is bound to a manufacturer for 40 years when purchasing aircraft. But the Gripen might be discontinued if there are too few orders," pointed out the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. The La Liberté newspaper featured a political cartoon showing Maurer struggling with tools, instructions and a tower of IKEA boxes – hinting that the jets might not be the bargain they appear to be. Le Temps ran a similar cartoon.

Le Temps described Maurer as clever for selecting the more "modest and reasonable" option, noting that the Rafale would have been shot down for its "excessive" price and because of "verbal attacks and the arrogant attitude of French leaders toward Switzerland". “In opting for the Saab Gripen, the government chose a fighter jet that meets military requirements while also going for a solution that is financially acceptable for the defence ministry and for the armed forces, in both the medium and long term,” a ministry statement explained. Maurer told a media conference that the Gripen was by far the cheapest option of the three aircraft in contention. He put the total cost of the fleet of 22 aircraft at about SFr3.1 billion ($3.4 billion).

Parliament had to approve the choice before the order can be placed. Opponents of any purchase of fighter jets want the decision to be put before Swiss voters. If necessary, the pacifist group Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) and the Greens say they will launch an initiative calling for a moratorium on the purchase. They had previously collected the requisite 100,000 signatures needed to call a vote on the issue, but had withdrawn it when the government announced that it would postpone buying the jets. But the opponents see a gleam of hope in Wednesday’s decision. A Green Party statement claimed that it is “an open secret” that the Gripen was bottom of the list for most members of the Air Force. “So it is conceivable that the government, which does not want to buy any fighters at the moment, chose the Gripen because it is the one with least support in parliament,” the party said.

Although the House of Representatives had given its green light, the Senate blocked it. It was only in September 2013 that both parliamentary chambers finally gave their approval. In the meantime pacifist groups sought to impose a moratorium on the purchase of fighter jets. They had collected enough signatures for a nationwide vote, but decided to withdraw their initiative for tactical reasons. However, it did not stop an alliance of centre-left groups from challenging the parliamentary decision, collecting the necessary signatures to force a nationwide vote.

Worried about upsetting Switzerland's strong economy, slightly more than half of Swiss voters spurned a request to outfit the Swiss Air Force with 22 new fighter jets priced at CHF3.1 billion ($3.5 billion). The defeat for the government and a majority in parliament comes more than 20 years after voters approved the acquisition of F/A-18 fighter jets. Some 53 percent voting in the 18 May 2914 referendum blocked a government plan to free up funds to replace Switzerland's aging fleet of fighter jets with 22 Gripen jets from Saab. Just over 55 percent of those eligible voted, the government said. It is the first major defeat for the government in a ballot on military matters for 20 years.

It is the first time that the left, who had challenged a parliament decision to a nationwide vote, has been successful in a military issue. The "no" vote for the Gripen jets bucks a historic trend for public support for the military and runs counter to a referendum in September 2013, in which the Swiss public voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping military conscription. The government had argued that Switzerland needed modern fighter jets - which are used to police the skies above Davos during the World Economic Forum - to support its armed forces and protect the country's stability.

"This decision will cause a security gap," Defense Minister Ueli Maurer said in reaction to the vote. "We will do everything we can to fill this gap in these difficult circumstances as quickly as is possible." Switzerland was embarrassed earlier in 2014 when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane heading for Geneva had to be escorted by French and Italian fighter jets because the incident occurred outside normal business hours.

Although both the Swiss upper and lower houses of parliament backed the deal, Swiss interest groups - including the socialists, Greens and the Group for Switzerland without an Army - secured a referendum by collecting the 50,000 signatures needed to force the popular vote. Opponents had argued buying the jets was an unnecessary expense, requiring cuts in other areas, such as education. They also said the cost of keeping the jets in operation would likely spiral to at least 10 billion francs over their lifetime.

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Page last modified: 31-05-2017 15:02:42 ZULU