Swiss Defense Minister Defends Swedish Jet Deal

Maurer said, however, that Switzerland would still consider alternatives to the Gripen if the French or any other plane-makers extend worthy counter offers.

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland's defense minister and military commanders have defended the government's decision to buy Swedish fighter jets, even though a secret air force report had recommended two rival offers.

Defense Minister Ueli Maurer told reporters in Bern, the Swiss capital, and in a statement that the Swedish-made Gripen is the best long-term financial choice, despite the Swiss Air Force's recommendation to buy other planes.

Maurer said the Swiss Cabinet's decision in November to order 22 Gripen fighters from Sweden's Saab AB — at a cost of 3.1 billion francs ($3.4 billion) — to replace the air force's aging Northrop F-5 Tigers is "the optimal solution for the Swiss army" based on several years of study.

Flanked by the top military brass, he said the decision was based on a cost summary over 30 years and assessment that three planes — the Gripen, the Rafale made by Dassault Aviation of France, and the Eurofighter made by a European consortium — were all adequate. The Gripen deal includes arms, logistics, training and other key elements.

Maurer said, however, that Switzerland would still consider alternatives to the Gripen if the French or any other plane-makers extend worthy counter offers.

The Swiss government "must make every effort to ensure that the acquisition of new fighter aircraft is financially sustainable for the army, medium and long term, in order to conserve resources for the army's other urgent needs," he said in a statement. "The Gripen is, therefore, the optimal solution for the army as a whole."

The Swiss Cabinet has acknowledged that costs were a factor in its decision to reject the two rival offers.

A confidential 2009 report from the Swiss Air Force posted online by a Swiss newspaper recommended buying Rafales or Eurofighters based on tests in 2008. The report published by the Zurich weekly newspaper SonntagsZeitung concluded those two were the best overall performers across most categories, provoking headlines and questions across Switzerland.

Swiss military commanders closed ranks behind Maurer despite the report. "All three candidates were seen as fit for the troops," said National Armament Director Ulrich Appenzeller.

Army Chief Andre Blattmann asserted that the military's "leadership is united behind" the Gripen decision.

The Gripen was the only one among the three planes that did not meet "minimum expected capabilities" when tested in areas known as air policing and defensive counter air missions. "The Rafale is recommended to be the New Fighter Aircraft for the Swiss Air Force," the November 2009 report concludes. "The best alternative to the Rafale is the Eurofighter."

Air Force Chief Markus Gygax emphasized, however, that part of the reason for choosing the Gripen is that there are newer models in the works, with more advanced features since those 2008 tests, that would now meet Swiss requirements.

As part of its 2012 arms program, the Swiss parliament is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to approve the order for the Gripens, which are used by air forces in Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand.

Swiss socialists, meanwhile, aim to hold a referendum on the jet deal, arguing it will undercut spending for schools, farms and other critical needs.

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