BERN With the planned 18 May referendum to decide whether Switzerland should purchase 22 Swedish Gripen fighter aircraft, how transparent is Bern with regard to cost and feasibility? Both the Swiss Federal Council and the Department of Defence are pushing a plane that the Norwegian government rejected five years ago based on two studies because of “high cost” and “inappropriate effectiveness.”
The 2008 Norwegian studies, one military, the other civilian, compare the Saab Gripen NG with the US-built Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, also a multi-role fighter. According to the reports, which are publicly accessible on the Norwegian government website, the Swedish plane performed less effectively with regard to cost and defence capability. Swiss defence department spokesman Renato Kalbermatten, however, argues that citing the 2008 reports is not appropriate given that the Gripen has been perfected to the newer E version and that the CHF 3.1 billion purchase price is fixed. “We have a contract with the Swedish government, not Saab, so we will pay no more than what is agreed, whatever happens,” said Kalbermatten. Any cost overruns would, in effect, be borne by Stockholm.
The Swiss are seeking to replace their aging F-5 Tiger while the Norwegians were looking for a fighter to bolster their F-16s Falcon. As asserted by Bern, which has been lobbied heavily by the Swedish embassy, the new Gripen will be paid in CHF 300 million annual instalments over 10 years. Kalbermatten, who claims that critical reports are often triggered by rival interests, says that “the Gripen is the best plane for Switzerland.” Earlier this week, the Financial Times noted that Saab had dangled a sweetener for Switzerland to vote in favour of the Gripen deal by offering CHF 405 million worth of contracts to Swiss companies.
It is these assertions, however, that are being disputed. According to Swiss Oslo-based international lawyer Maurice Hartmark, one of the Norwegian report authors had drawn his attention to Oslo’s assessment. “As a (Swiss) citizen, I considered it a problem that our country was pushing for a plane that is of less quality and costs far more. I don’t care who makes the plane,” Hartmark said.
Concerned that Bern was not aware of the Norwegian reports, although public in Norway, Hartmark had initially contacted Jakob Baumann of Armasuisse, a branch of the Swiss Defence Department in December 2008. Baumann appeared particularly interested by the methods of the Norwegian experts and had the studies translated. These clearly stated that the Gripen did not respond to Norway’s requirements. They also maintained that the Gripen was expected to cost 25% more than the F-35 at purchase, and 15% more over the life period of 30 years. While Norway’s defence needs are not necessarily the same as the Confederation’s, and hence the Gripen’s allegedly inferior capabilities might not prove detrimental in the Swiss context, the cost struck a nerve.
Baumann was replaced shortly afterwards, but Armasuisse’s own evaluation reportedly showed that this earlier version of the Gripen was not the best aircraft. Evi Alleman, a leading centre-left Social Democratic parliamentarian, argues that the latest Gripen E version remains “untested and nobody knows how it will perform.” She further says that Switzerland does not need to spend money on more fighters. “We have enough to police the skies and the money would be better spent on necessities such as education.” Pascal Kümmerling, an aviation expert, however, said that a group of Swiss pilots recently travelled to Sweden to test the Gripen E and returned with glowing reports. “It performed vastly better than the earlier version,” he said.
As aviation specialists point out, costs are not simply based on purchase price, but rather upkeep over a 30-year period. For the Swiss, this means that the Gripen could theoretically cost taxpayers up to CHF 11 billion and not the CHF 3.1 billion officially cited. “How do they plan to pay the rest, a good CHF 8-9 billion more as per the Norwegian calculations? This is a serious deficit in information to the people.” said Hartmark.
For Kalbermatten, maintenance costs will not exceed an additional CHF 3 billion. He denied that it would be the CHF 8-9 billion suggested and said that this was part of a strategy to confuse voters. He also referred to various favourable aviation magazine reports, such as a 2012 Jane’s Information Group study, noting that the Gripen has one of the lowest operational costs among similar fighters. In what Kümmerling referred to as a “dossier packed with misinformation,” both performance and cost clearly remain heavily disputed among experts and politicians alike. One wonders how ordinary voters will make their decisions.