The $ 5.5 billion deal adds a 15th nation to the world’s largest weapons project – a family of interconnected single-engine jets to be used by the United States and its allies and partners.
It went hand in hand with a $ 2.1 billion deal to purchase the Patriot surface-to-air missile system from Raytheon, a deal that was lost to European competitors.
The F-35 has faced multiple budget overruns, delays and technical setbacks, but is building up export momentum. Critics say the project, valued at trillions of dollars during its lifetime, drove up costs while failing to meet performance targets.
Neutral Switzerland will buy 36 F-35As after an assessment found it had “the highest total benefit at the lowest total cost,” the government said.
The aircraft beat bids from Boeing’s F / A-18 Super Hornet, the Rafale from France’s Dassault and the four-nation Eurofighter built by Germany and Spain-backed Airbus, Italy’s Leonardo and Britain’s BAE Systems.
The decision was immediately criticized by opponents of armaments and left-wing parties, who will now launch a campaign for a referendum on this issue, the third Swiss vote on the purchase of fighter jets.
Seven years ago, voters turned down the purchase of Gripen jets from the Swedish Saab, while the CHF 6 billion ($ 6.5 billion) funding that led to the purchase of the F-35As last year was only just approved.
Opponents say Switzerland doesn’t need state-of-the-art combat aircraft to defend its alpine region, which a supersonic jet can cross in 10 minutes.
“The decision is simply incomprehensible,” said Priska Seiler Graf, member of the Bundestag for the left-wing Social Democrats (SP), who has expressed concerns about the costs.
“It’s not just about buying them, it’s also about the maintenance and operating costs,” she added. “We should look for a European solution … we don’t want to be dependent on the US.”
The government preferred the Patriot missile system to the Franco-Italian group Eurosam.
Defense Secretary Viola Amherd said the F-35As were selected after they performed the most impressive performance in a rating and were the best value for money.
The total cost of 15.5 billion Swiss francs ($ 16.7 billion) was 2 billion Swiss francs cheaper than the next lower bidder, the government said, based on the aircraft’s purchase and operation over 30 years.
“We would not have bought a Ferrari if a VW were enough and the Ferrari was three times as expensive,” said Amherd at a press conference.
The Swiss parliament now has to approve the financing of the purchase, the debate is planned for the beginning of next year. She can discuss costs and conditions, but she cannot review model selection.
The fighter’s decision was closely observed as the first of three duels against Finland and Canada.
Lockheed’s stealthy fifth generation fighter aircraft recently added Poland to its list of European customers, which includes Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK.
US President Joe Biden spoke out on behalf of American companies at a meeting with his Swiss counterpart in Geneva for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Analysts said the decision to snub both European fighter jet candidates and the offer of surface-to-air missiles could be seen as a Swiss rejection at a time of tense Bern-Brussels relations following the breakdown of talks on a new deal the European Union is viewed as regulating trade and other matters.
By doubling US suppliers, the government could anger the 49.8% of voters who voted against funding last year.
Opponents of arms say that Switzerland, which last fought a foreign war more than 200 years ago and has no recognizable enemies, does not need ultra-modern fighters.
But proponents have said that Switzerland needs to be able to protect itself without relying on others.
Jonas Kampus, political secretary of the group for a Switzerland without an army, said he was confident of winning a referendum against the F-35As.
The government “can expect a serious defeat in the vote. The follow-up polls in September (2020) showed a clear rejection of the F-35 in the voting population,” he said.
Marionna Schlatter, a Green MP, said September’s poll was too short to ignore opposition concerns.
“People don’t want a Ferrari in the air,” she said.