By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace, and Bastian Giegerich, Director of Defence and Military Analysis
Neither Switzerland nor neighbouring Austria has a large combat-aircraft requirement, and neither, for differing reasons, has had particular success in recent combat-aircraft projects. Direct democracy in the form of a plebiscite voted down a previous Swiss effort in 2014 to buy the Saab Gripen, while Austria has stated that it is to withdraw its latest fighter, the Typhoon, from 2020 onwards, only 17 years after it first ordered the aircraft.
Switzerland may purchase 20–70 aircraft, depending on which options presented by a government-mandated group of experts in May 2017 are pursued, while Austria is looking to acquire 18 aircraft. In the case of the former, a figure of around 30 aircraft may be the eventual outcome. Increasing a production order for a particular aircraft type by even a modest figure could be cost advantageous for both parties, and would open the door to at the very least to also jointly buying spares, support and potentially weapons.
However, an obvious challenge, putting aside the tradition of independent equipment acquisition, is the lack of alignment in terms of the proposed introduction of new aircraft types into inventories. Austria, optimistically, appears to want to begin to introduce a successor to the Eurofighter Typhoon from around 2020, while the Swiss Air Force would only begin to take a successor to the F/A-18C/D Hornet and F-5 Tiger in 2025.
The Swiss may be in a position to select a type during the course of 2020, but there is a possibility that the Austrian selection process could be delayed, given that the reported Eurofighter phase-out period between 2020 and 2023 is driven by a mix of cost and political concerns. Alignment of purchase, while challenging, would not be impossible, even if the dates of entry into service were staggered. The potential for a combined buy would not even require that the two countries run a joint procurement process. Instead, they could simply inform bidders that in the event of both selection processes identifying the same type the option of a combined purchase would be discussed with the winning manufacturer. This might also incentivise bidders to provide a second, and lower, unit-cost offer based on a combined purchase.
Elements of such cooperation have already been considered as part of the report of the Swiss expert group concluded earlier this year. This examined whether cooperation with Austria could provide the required response times for air-policing needs. The geography of the two states’ air-force bases, however, meant that the response times for an air intercept could not be met. But this operational requirement would not preclude cooperation during acquisition and then support throughout the aircraft life.
Possible bidders for either or both countries’ fighter projects include Boeing with the F/A-18E/F, Dassault with the Rafale, Eurofighter with the Typhoon, Lockheed Martin with the F-35 and Saab with the Gripen E/F. Eurofighter’s position is made difficult given the situation regarding the Typhoon in Austria, while the emphasis on the air-to-air requirement does not play to the F-35’s primary strength as an air-to-surface aircraft.
Indeed, the Austrian fighter procurement was prompted by the decision in 2017 to withdraw the Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft from service, even though Vienna signed a contract for the aircraft only in 2003. Allegations over the acquisition resulted in the Austrian government initiating legal proceedings against Airbus Defence & Space and Eurofighter in February 2017. Uncertainty over the future support costs for the Tranche 1 aircraft has also contributed to the Austrian decision. Not surprisingly, relationships between the Austrian government, Airbus and Eurofighter are strained. Meanwhile, defence-ministry officials have been quoted in the local press suggesting that Airbus would not be considered to meet a potential army-helicopter requirement. Airbus Helicopter has not ruled out legal action were it to be barred from bidding. A national election is due to be held in Austria on 15 October 2017, with defence procurement a sensitive issue.
Assuming combat-aircraft requirements are sustained in Austria and Switzerland, there would be potential benefits in a combined purchase. It is a possibility that politicians and the military should at least explore.
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