On November 30, 2011 Swiss federal defense and sport minister (yes, the same ministry deals with both of these issues) Ueli Maurer (SVP) made it known that the Swiss military would purchase 22 new fighter jets from the Swedish aerospace company Saab. The Griffin JAS 39 (Gripen in German) come at a cost of 3.1 billion francs. To finance this purchase the federal government will cut spending in other areas like education and research.
On February 13, 2012 Swiss newspapers reported about how Mr. Maurer is coming under fire after resent studies and evaluations have graded the new jets as insufficient in meeting the criteria the military had established for the new jets. Furthermore, the new Griffin jets are supposedly worse than the F/A-18s that the air force took into commission 15 years ago. What is also hard to understand about the results of the test is that the tests were conducted in 2008, meaning that Mr. Maurer should have had at least two years to read the reports, which he claims he was unaware of.
While the Griffin purchase will surely become known as Switzerland’s “Griffingate”, the underlying issue is being less discussed. Why is Switzerland investing so much money in its military? Switzerland has not been militarily attacked by a foreign force since its neutrality was officially declared at the Vienna Conference of 1815. There are two parts to this answer.
The first is what I call the myth of nations. Each nation has a set of myths that help to build a national consciousness. In Switzerland the predominant myth is that the country’s wealth comes from the hardworking and industrious people in the country. This wealth is subsequently protected by its well trained military. According to the myth the military is so respect and efficient that without the use of force has made Switzerland an unattractive target for foreign invasion, even during World War II.
I’m not going to say that this is all wrong, but it is definitely not all correct. Switzerland profits from its small size, attractive tax structure, and geographical situation. Furthermore, its neutrality made it attractive for many NGOs and other organizations to be located here in the earlier part of the 20th century. Today the big banks live off foreign holdings and investments. They bring money to Switzerland. That’s not to say companies like ABB and Nestlé do not matter, of course they do, but the banks are the largest source of money for the country and why threats from the US, EU and other countries regarding banking secrecy are taken so seriously and so much anxiety.
To link this back to “Griffingate” I am going to propose a psychological argument. Why is the country investing in the military and not in education and research? The answer is that open public investment in the military tells the people that Switzerland is threatened and needs to protect itself. This increases the conservative and xenophobic mentality of people, who will in turn be more likely to vote for parties that preach conservative values.
For Switzerland’s own best interest, the government would do better to invest in a standing professional military that can be used for patrolling and protecting major summits held within its borders. Increased spending in education and research spending will do more to keep Switzerland an economic success than a military. Every economist and business professional full acknowledges that low-end manufacturing is a dying industry. Advanced technology, research and development are the only ways of securing the economic future of Western countries. Switzerland has done a good job in this field, but as the world becomes more competitive, more investment in this field will be necessary.
The solution to “Griffingate” is bitter. Cancel the contract with Saab and pay the high breaking of contract penalty. Then re-evaluate priorities and draw a plan for where the country wants to go. Switzerland cannot stay a frozen bubble. It can choose to lead the world in new developments or fall behind trying to save what it has.