Swiss voters reject Gripen deal

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Gripen C performs a gun strafing pass over the Swiss alps, during Axalp 2013. The Swiss parliament has recently confirmed the procurement of 22 Gripen E fighters for the Swiss Air Force. Photo: Eduard Isch via Saab (Flickr)
Swedish Air Force Gripen C performing over the Alps during Axalp 2013. Photo: Ismael Jordá via Saab (Flickr)
Swedish Air Force Gripen C performing over the Alps during Axalp 2013. Photo: Ismael Jordá via SAAB (Flickr)

Swiss voters rejected today a planned procurement of 22 Gripen fighter jets from Sweden, under a program worth $3.5 billion. The Swiss Air force planned to field the Gripen as a successor for the obsolete F-5E/F that has been in service since since 1976.

Switzerland has acquired 72 F-5E/F fighter jets in 1976, and added 38 more in 1981. Only part of these planes remain operational. Switzerland also operates 32 F/A-18C/Ds which were undergoing upgrades under the US$200 million Hornet 25 program. Failing to field the Gripen is a setback for the SAAB company, as well as to the Swiss Air Force, that will remain without a viable replacement for the obsolete F-5E/F toward 2020s.

The fighter plane’s supporters said neutral Switzerland needs the Gripen to defend its airspace. That claim got undermined in February with the forced landing of an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise plane in Geneva. The hijacked plane had to be escorted by French and Italian jets as the Swiss air force doesn’t operate to protect the country’s airspace outside of business hours. The 22-plane contract awarded 30 months ago was opposed by 53.4 percent of voters. Gripen opponents had argued that the planes would cost 10 billion francs over their lifetime, money that could be deployed elsewhere.

Switzerland and Brazil were the first nations after Sweden to pick the next-generation Gripen E, whose development is contingent on an export order of at least 20 aircraft.