Swiss defense minister defends Swedish jet deal

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By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — Put on the hot seat by a secret air force report, Switzerland's defense minister on Tuesday strongly defended the government's decision to buy Swedish fighter jets.

Defense Minister Ueli Maurer told reporters in the Swiss capital of Bern 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.

Flanked by the top military brass, Maurer said the Swiss Cabinet's decision in November to order 22 Gripen fighters from Sweden's Saab AB 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.

His statement also 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. It said the deal includes arms, logistics, training and other key elements.

Maurer's statement said the 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. ... 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.

But 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.

As part of its 2012 arms program, the Swiss parliament must still approve a 3.1 billion francs ($3.4 billion) 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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