Swiss Combat Aircraft Capability Continues to Shrink

by Dan Darling, Forecast International.

Age and wear are taking a toll on the Swiss Air Force’s combat aircraft capability. The service’s 36 F-5 Tigers – purchased in 1976 and 1981, with deliveries following in 1978 and 1984, respectively – are suffering from aging airframes. A crack was discovered in the supporting structure of a single-seat F-5E variant during a major overhaul project of the fleet in 2014, which resulted in a fleet-wide inspection of all E and F (two-seat) types.

During the ensuing verification process, another significant crack was found on a second aircraft in January 2015.

Now, the Swiss Department of Defense has decided that after finding 16 aircraft with cracks during the exhaustive process, only six of these – all single-seat Es – will be repaired and returned to service (in the first quarter of 2016). The F-5 fleet – which began with 110 aircraft, 98 F-5Es and 12 two-seat F-5Fs – will shrink to a mere 26 units once the repairs are completed.

With the other fighter complement – 33 F/A-18C/D Hornet fighter aircraft – factored into the equation, the entire fighter inventory is now down to 59 aircraft.

For a neutral country surrounded by friendly nations, this total is – on paper, at least – entirely sufficient. However, defense of Swiss airspace was exposed as vulnerable in February 2014 when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight had to be escorted and forced to land in Geneva by French and Italian fighters, as the Swiss Air Force only protects the country’s airspace during business hours.

The vulnerable airspace is the result of limited operational funds and dwindling combat aircraft capability – a problem destined to worsen when the F-5 Tiger fleet is eventually retired after 2016 with no replacement in sight.

An attempt to procure a future fighter under the TTE project (F-5E fighter replacement program) proved politically divisive in the pacifist country. A grassroots campaign, led by the pacifist organization Group for Switzerland Without an Army, against purchasing the successor platform selected by the government – the Saab Gripen E – was put to a popular referendum in May 2014. The procurement was struck down as 53.4 percent of Swiss voters opted to reject the program.

With no plan B alternative formulated by the Department of Defense, Switzerland appears satisfied to let its combat aircraft inventory shrink via attrition. The next question will become what happens when the F/A-18 Hornet fleet – purchased in 1993 – nears obsolescence.

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