Interview: Christian Dorer
The many fans of the Patrouille Suisse can hope again. If Viola Amherd (59) has his way, the Luftwaffe’s famous aerobatic squadron should continue to inspire in the future – although the F-5 planes have to be retired because of their age. “We are examining alternatives,” reveals the Federal President, who herself has “great joy” in the tricks of the Patrouille Suisse.
Blick: Ms. Amherd, the Federal Council decided on Wednesday to buy the F-35 fighter jets, although there is an initiative against the procurement. Why?
Viola Amherd: The population gave the Federal Council the power to procure the aircraft in a referendum. At that time it was known that there were four types to choose from – including the F-35A. So the people knew what they were voting on. Now we have an offer that is valid until the end of March 2023. If we don’t sign the purchase contract within this period, there will be renegotiations.
What would that mean specifically?
There is a risk that we will lose our production slot because meanwhile Finland, Germany and Canada have also decided to buy the same aircraft. They would then come before us in production – with the result that we would not have the aircraft when the old ones had to be taken out of service. If so, we would have an important gap in the country’s defenses.
The initiators criticize that it is extremely sensitive in terms of democratic politics to buy the jets now, while an initiative against it is running. Normally one waits for the vote.
The procedure is not sensitive in terms of democratic politics, but on the contrary even ultra-democratic! The Federal Council could have procured the fighter jets without a referendum. In addition, the initiators said when the initiative was launched that they would submit it very quickly.
There was even talk of last autumn! Now one is still not that far and thus jeopardizes the acceptance of the offer. Actually, it is the initiative that disregards the referendum.
What if the initiative were accepted? Will you resell the jets then?
No, an initiative has no retroactive effect. The contract of sale remains in effect. The initiative only affects future procurements.
With the decommissioning of the Tiger jets, there is no longer a Patrouille Suisse. Is there really no way to salvage the Swiss Air Force trademark?
I myself am very happy with the Patrouille Suisse and I understand that many people regret that. But it is firstly a question of safety and then also a question of costs.
The planes are just so old. But now the Air Force is looking to see whether there are alternatives and whether an aerobatic team could be set up with other aircraft, such as propeller planes. We’re just waiting to see what suggestions come up. So there is hope for the Patrouille Suisse.
In addition to buying the fighter jets, Parliament recently decided to increase the army budget from five to seven billion francs. What’s at the top of your shopping list?
We have planned additional investments in cyber for next year. That has already been decided by the Security Commission of the Council of States. In addition, additional investments are planned to purchase new mortars of the Mörser 16 type. Another important point: We want to evaluate a lead vehicle.
They say that the additional army spending does not require any austerity measures or tax increases. But you can only spend every franc once! That doesn’t work.
The federal budget has increased steadily over the last few years. One can assume that this will continue. Then more can also be spent on the army. Army spending has grown at a below-average rate in recent decades. There is therefore a certain amount of catching up to do. If the federal government needs austerity programs on day X, the army will of course also make a contribution.
Then the budget can go down again?
Yes, that is why we are doing an incremental increase. So we have the opportunity to adjust.
How well prepared is the army for a conflict today?
Overall, she is in good shape. That shows our first analysis in the face of the Ukraine war. But we need to do more to not only maintain the skills, but also to be ready for defense.
How long could the army hold out in case of defense?
That depends on the type of attack taking place. It’s really difficult to say, but you have to be able to defend yourself autonomously for a certain period of time. In the event of an attack, neutrality would be lost and we could find partners who could support us.
Why don’t we look for these partners today and join NATO?
The law of neutrality rules out NATO membership. We cannot join any military alliance. But we can work together more. My security policy department is currently working to show what is actually possible.
Neutrality is just a myth. Switzerland is part of the West, as you can see from the sanctions, for example.
Neutrality is not just a myth, it is enshrined in law. If you want to change that, you have to have a discussion about it.
You can initiate this as Minister of Defense!
I think it’s very important that the discussion is now held and reflections are made. But Switzerland is also a country that does good offices and has protecting power mandates and can thus contribute to international peace. When you’re not neutral anymore, it becomes more difficult. That’s why you have to weigh it up very carefully.
In practice, Switzerland is on Russia’s list of unfriendly states. You can’t be neutral here.
Being neutral doesn’t mean not having an opinion. Economic sanctions are compatible with the law of neutrality and are necessary in the event of such a flagrant violation of international law.