Switzerland Spending $330 Million Upgrading Airbase For New F-35 Stealth Fighters: Why It May Be a Difficult Transition

The Swiss Defence Ministry is set to spend over $330 million to modernise multiple airfields to accommodate new F-35A fifth generation fighters, with new infrastructure set to be built at bases of Payerne near Geneva, Meiringen near Interlaken and Emmen in the canton of Lucerne in central Switzerland. Work will be done in preparation for the arrival of the first F-35s in 2028, with the fighter class having by far the longest waiting time before delivery due to both its very long queue of buyers and to wide ranging issues which have hindered production. With the dimensions of the F-35A being comparable to those of the F-18 Hornet which the Swiss Air Force currently operates, much of the existing facilities can be reused for the new aircraft which has reportedly cut costs significantly. Training infrastructure, technical installations and security devices, however, will all require significant changes. New buildings will be added to house system planning and engagement rooms among other facilities, as well as new training facilities such as flight simulators.

The Swiss Air Force announced the result of its tender to acquire a new generation of fighter jets on June 30, 2021, with F-35s winning as they have consistently for all tenders in which they have competed with other Western fighter classes. This has allowed them to take European markets by storm at the expense of less competitive locally produced aircraft. Preparations to transition from F-18 to F-35 operations, however, are expected to be far from straightforward, with the F-35’s maintenance requirements far exceeding those of its predecessor resulting in most fleets in much lower availability rates. A significant re training of Swiss personnel is expected to be necessary for roles ranging from maintenance of advanced AESA radars and complex radar absorbent coatings to actually flying and exercising command and control over the jets. Switzerland remains the only officially neutral country to have acquired F-35s, although the country has taken steps away from this status particularly from early 2022 including joining European Union economic sanctions against Russia and increasing participation in NATO exercises. While concerns have been raised that limited interactions with other F-35 operating states could impede Switzerland’s ability to make full use of its F-35s, Bern’s growing efforts to integrate more closely into NATO without formally joining the alliance could help to address this. 

All fighter classes in production in the Western world other than the American F-15 competed for a contract worth over $7 billion to equip the Swiss Air Force, with the F-35A and French Rafale having been considered frontrunners in the competition. The American F-18E/F, pan-European Eurofighter and Swedish-American Gripen were seen as less competitive for varying reasons. Compared to the F-35 the Rafale had the key advantage of much lower maintenance needs and lifetime operational costs, while also lacking political restrictions and not binding the Swiss Air Force as closely to joint U.S.-centred battle networks – which would have aligned more closely with the country’s neutral status. With a similar production cost, and technologically a generation ahead of the all other Western fighters in production, however, the F-35’s performance advantages were overwhelming in both the air to air domain and for strike missions. Switzerland already operates the maintenance infrastructure and armaments for American fighters, and with the Rafale being the only fighter in the competition that is not compatible with U.S. munitions purchasing the aircraft would require the country to dispose of all its existing inventory. Close ties between the U.S. and Swiss militaries built up since the early years of the Cold War would also potentially be eroded should the latter transition to using non-American fighter aircraft.