Switzerland open to offers on Gripen jet deal

Tue Feb 14, 2012 10:23am EST

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* Defence minister says Gripen "satifactory"

* No concrete rival offers to Gripen so far

ZURICH Feb 14 (Reuters) - Switzerland would consider alternatives to the 22 Gripen jets it has agreed to buy from Saab to replace older warplanes, its defence minister said on Tuesday.

Flanked by his military chiefs of staff, Ueli Maurer told a news conference the government would be ready to look at any serious rival bids.

Maurer has come under pressure to justify the choice of plane after a Swiss newspaper published extracts of two secret test reports showing the Gripen fared worse than originally thought in tests against rivals.

Test reports published by the SonntagsZeitung suggested the Gripen did not "meet minimum expected capabilities" to carry out air policing missions.

Maurer on Tuesday described the Gripen as "satisfactory" according to a grading-scale used throughout the whole evaluation process.

Switzerland has wrangled for three years over how to replace its aged Northrop F-5E/F Tiger fighters, purchased in 1976 and 1981. In November the government opted to buy 22 JAS-39 Gripens for a price tag of 3.1 billion Swiss francs ($3.4 bln).

Maurer said at the time that Saab's offer was considerably cheaper than rivals the Rafale built by France's Dassault Aviation and EADS's Anglo-German-Italian Eurofighter Typhoon.

"The cabinet chose the Gripen because it fulfilled the technical requirements...and was the most cost-efficient plane and the only plane that could be financed under the available budget," Maurer said on Tuesday.

Even aside from wrangling over the supplier, the purchase of fighter jets is contentious as the government will have to cut back on education and agricultural spending to fund the order.

According to recent newspaper reports, Dassault put forward a counter offer to supply Switzerland with 18 Rafale jets for 2.7 billion Swiss francs instead of an original demand of 4 billion francs for 22 jets.

Maurer said on Tuesday the government had not received any formal counter offers. "We've asked the French to give us a really concrete offer," he said. "If we really do get a lower offer, we'd be able to look at it."

Since the Swiss cabinet's decision, Dassault's Rafale has emerged as the preferred bidder to supply India. Brazil is also likely to chose the Rafale, government sources told Reuters.

The Swiss government will present parliament with a purchase order by June, which will be considered by the security commissions of both the upper and lower houses. The final decision on the jets is expected by the end of 2012. (Reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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