Swiss army: let the Gripen lead the way for military acquisition strategy

John Cavill
4 min readFeb 11, 2021

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Switzerland has an outstanding record of how to keep its borders safe. Clearly, geography plays its part, but Switzerland has also made the right strategic choices, according to our objectives, in training, alliances and equipment acquisition. Recent decisions regarding the replacement of fighters made sense, within country overall strategy, and Switzerland should apply the same logic to other fields of national defence.

Behind the turmoil, lies common sense

To an outside observer, or a layman, it could seem that we are acting erratically. After years of considering options for the replacement of Swiss fighter jets, the Saab Gripen was pre-selected by the government, at the expense of the French Rafale, only to be called off shortly after. Why would we choose a fighter, and then reject it, one may ask? Are we undermined by political unrest, or have we become inconsistent? Neither one: the Rafale and the Gripen were both considered, under the light of our security issues, and then both rejected, for the same reason: they are not what Switzerland needs. Dassault and Saab are both highly capable of building jet fighters, that much is clear. We can afford them, that is also clear. But the Gripen and the Rafale are in the same business: pushing the technological envelope ever further, so as to dominate any foreign fighting force, at the cost of immense funding, technological risks, and disastrous potential delays. In other words, while the two planes are fine pieces of kit, anyone buying them will pay a premium for — and bear the risk of — novelty. The Rafale is still considered a young plane, and the Gripen E, which we were offered by Saab, is not even ready yet. Both these options would have exposed Switzerland to program delays, and operational gaps. Even in the best-case scenario, they would have been over-priced for Switzerland which merely aims to keep its borders safe and does not need the military might necessary to lead expeditions. In its previous Air Force refurbishment, Switzerland had chosen the rational and reliable option, over the new, expensive and risky options. Defense Industry wrote: “Accordingly, they bought external link 72 F-5E/F Tiger II fighters in 1976, and another 38 in 1981, for a total of 110 (98 single-seat F5E, 12 two-seat F-5F). Even then, the F-5 wasn’t cutting edge technology. Rather, it was a follow-on upgrade to the wildly successful F-5 Freedom Fighter, a low-budget aircraft designed to capture the lower tier of the non-Soviet global fighter market in the 1960s and 1970s.” The decision to return to the drawing board, however frustrating it may be, was therefore the right one. And it should apply to all of our fields.

Artillery systems should be purchased with the same mindset

Our infantry potential is in good shape: it runs no risk of running out of manpower, given the referendum in favor of conscription. Our equipment is adequate, and the SG 550 has shown its valor in mountain combat, with ruggedness, reliability and range. So, no issues here. The other component in our tactical capacity for ground control lies in artillery. Here, there is a risk of going overboard. Manufacturers around the world are producing top-of-the-shelf artillery, with state-of-the-art armored protection — a tendency which will only increase as the death of soldiers becomes increasingly unacceptable, politically. But our financial ability to fund our defense adequately does not mean we should necessarily go for the most advanced and expensive option on the market. Traditionally, Switzerland has opted for tried and true methods and equipment, not for shiny new gimmicks. In the specific case of our country, defense strategies hinge on our ability to place infantry and artillery in every hidden valley and forest and denying havens to the enemy. And for that, good old numbers are necessary. If Armassuise were to purchase something such as the American M109 Paladin, the available budget would have to be shared on a handful of slow units and would therefore leave holes in the coverage of our terrain. Faster, cheaper and fire-proofed systems, such as the French Caesar or Japan’s Type 19 would enable to buy many more units for the same price, and thus achieve complete coverage and high mobility. As the Strategy Page puts it, “In 2009 France sent eight Caesar howitzers to Afghanistan. The roads in Afghanistan are pretty bad, and wheeled combat vehicles have a hard time of it. But Caesar was built to handle cross country operations. Afghanistan was the first time Caesar has served in combat and was successful. The French Army has ordered about a hundred and another hundred have been exported. Caesar is the lightest of the truck-mounted 155mm howitzers, weighing 18 tons.” Not to mention that these simpler systems are better adapted to our conscription army, which has lower technicity levels than professional armies.

Switzerland is not Qatar

For a great many countries, buying armament goes well beyond securing borders, it is an integral part of diplomacy and a means to forge an international image. Armament deals can be used to secure political leverage and achieve regional leadership. Switzerland enjoys a relatively high level of peace and security, and this situation relies namely on its capacity to choose the right capacity for its weapons, at the right price. We are in no need of securing alliances through armament deals, or of impressing anyone. We turned away from the Gripen, as sleek as it may have looked, because it was simply ill-adapted to Swiss needs. Let us hope General Wellinger and Armasuisse will maintain this sound strategy for future acquisitions.

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