ZURICH In neutral Switzerland, debate is raging over whether to replace 54 aging fighter jets, a potentially lucrative deal for European arms firms but one that could be shot down in a referendum.
Although no final decision is expected before 2010, the plan has already caused a stir, given Swiss aversion to expensive weapons in the absence of a concrete threat, the army's unpopularity, and a national reputation for thriftiness.
With a budget of 2.2 billion Swiss francs ($1.9 billion) to purchase up to 33 new aircraft, the deal is substantial both for Switzerland and for a defense industry hit by shrinking interest in preparing for Cold War dogfights.
The Swiss air force argues that its Northrop (NOC.N) F-5E/F Tigers, purchased in 1976 and 1981, no longer fit its needs.
"The Tiger has no guided missiles to be used in all weather conditions and at night, and its radar cannot pick up low-flying objects," said Kaj-Gunnar Sievert, spokesman for procurement agency Armasuisse.
Furthermore, the aircraft are increasingly affected by cracks and corrosion, Sievert said.
Boeing (BA.N) snubbed Switzlerand in April, citing the gap between the country's more modest requirements and Boeing's revamped F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Switzerland already has an older version of the Hornet.
That leaves three European suitors: Sweden's Saab (SAABb.ST) JAS 39 Gripen, EADS's EAD.PA Anglo-German-Italian Eurofighter Typhoon and France's independent Rafale, built by Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA) and urgently seeking its first foreign buyer.
The single-engined Gripen -- cheaper than its twin-engine rivals -- has taken an early lead after Saab secured an alliance with Swiss aircraft maker Pilatus. A deal could involve licensed production of the jets in Switzerland, Saab's Manne Koerfer said.
As the Swiss air force's rigorous testing program gets underway, the serenity of some of Switzerland's most beautiful Alpine landscapes will be disturbed by the thunder of military jets.
In February, Swiss voters defeated a referendum targeting a ban on fighter jet flights over tourist areas. But aircraft noise may cause a political backlash.
The government will announce a winner in July 2009, but parliamentary approval in Bern looks shaky as Switzerland's vociferous army critics are stepping up their campaign.
"The purchase is unnecessary from a security-political point of view. Fighter jets make too much noise and are damaging to the environment," said GSoA (Group for a Switzerland without an Army) secretary Patrick Angele.
When Switzerland last embarked on an arms deal of a similar size, in 1992, GSoA managed to secure 500,000 signatures against the purchase of 33 F/A-18 Hornets within one month, easily surpassing the 100,000 signatures needed to hold a referendum.
"We have already secured 55,000 signatures. A representative poll by Demoscope shows that 66 percent of all voters are against the purchase. We are confident for the referendum," Angele said.
Although 57 percent of the electorate approved the 1992 deal eventually, experts expect a new referendum to face an even rougher ride.
In July, Switzerland's chief of staff, Roland Nef, was forced to resign over a sex-scandal, only weeks after air force chief Walter Knutti quit following a rafting accident in which 5 air force soldiers died.
These events have further undermined the standing of an institution already struggling to adapt to the changed security risks in the 21st century, with the main threats coming not from large standing armies but small terrorist cells.
Following Wednesday's surprise resignation of defense minister Samuel Schmid, political support for the Swiss army's project is less certain than ever.
STRATEGIC QUESTION MARKS
Nevertheless, the Swiss air force insists that without the new aircraft, its ability to maintain air patrols -- such as policing the sky over the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos -- would decline to a maximum of just two weeks.
According to its calculations, the air force needs the additional jets to be able to have at least four jets in the air at all times -- which is necessary because the country's small size leaves little time to get fighters airborne.
But some experts are challenging this view, arguing that big numbers of fighter jets reflect Cold War thinking. "Air space control is done by radar. The aircraft don't need to be airborne 24 hours a day but on stand-by duty on the ground. The existing 33 F/A-18 (Hornets) are sufficient," Albert Stahel, a leading security analyst, told Swiss weekly WOZ.
Following completion of the purchase, the Swiss air force would boast roughly the same number of fighter jets as Finland, a fellow non-aligned nation, which faces the more challenging task of patrolling its 800 mile-long border with Russia.
Switzerland's Alpine neighbor Austria, whose air force is also tasked with enforcing a strict neutrality policy, operates a mere 15 Eurofighters.
By slashing those numbers or refurbishing its existing fleet of aircraft, Switzerland could make substantial savings and spend its money on more urgently needed types of weapons, critics say.
According to Stahel, the Swiss air force should invest its money in new pilots and not in aircraft.
Ultimately, analysts expect political questions to outweigh military ones.
At a time when the government is spending money to prop up Swiss banks, voters will think long and hard about how much they are willing to spend on maintaining the country's strategy of armed neutrality.
(Reporting by Andrew Thompson; Editing by Tim Hepher and Eddie Evans)