The Swiss Air Force and its Problem with Democracy

Switzerland. When thinking about this small country located in the middle of Europe, many people start connecting it with cheese, chocolate, money, the Matterhorn and its neutrality. There are also people around the world who think that we’re the guys who invented IKEA but just to be very clear on this: If we would have invented IKEA, the user manuals would have been way easier to understand.

In Switzerland, we have a pretty unique political system. Here is a short explanation because this is important to understand for the main story of this topic. As in many other countries, we elect our parliament every four years. But in addition to that, we have four popular votes every year. If a citizen or a party manages to collect 100‘000 signatures during a certain period of time, the subject will be part of such a vote. If it’s accepted, it will be written in our constitution, even if the parliament and government are against it. The same happens, if a citizen or a party manages to collect 50‘000 signatures against a law, parliament just passed. The law won’t entry into force, if the majority of the citizens are against it. The people basically have always the last word.

And here is where this story beginns.

The Swiss and their Air Force

The Swiss Air Force was founded in 1914 after World War I. Their task was the same as it is today: Defending Switzerland and its airspace. In the early years, they flew locally build Swiss planes, German Messerschmidts as well as British Vampire jets.

Today, they use F-5 Tigers, F/A 18 Hornets, as well as Pilatus PC-21, PC-7 and PC-9 for training.

In 1992, the Swiss parliament voted to buy those F/A 18 jets, after they bought the F-5 in 1975. Here began the first troubles. There was a groupe called „Switzerland without an army“. They started to collect signatures against this bill, and they were successful. In 1993, there was a popular vote whether the F/A 18 should actually be bought or not. 57.1% voted in favor for the new jets so the government bought 34 new Hornets. They are still in use today.

And here’s the new problem: The F-5 Tigers as well as the F/A 18 Hornets need to be replaced soon, because they’re getting old. The government decided in 2013 that the Saab Gripen should be the new jet for the Swiss Air Force. Yet again, some people were not very happy with that decision. They started to collect signatures again and in 2014, the Swiss voted against the new jets. The main argument was, that they were to expensive.

So what’s todays situation: According to the military and government, the Swiss Air Force needs new planes. Urgently. Otherwise, there’ll come the day, when they cannot secure the airspace anymore.

Last week, they presented a new plan:

They want to try to buy new jets again. This time though, the Swiss people won’t get the possibility to decide, what jet shall be bought. We will only vote whether new jets actually will be bought or not. This popular vote will take place in 2019 or 2020. If the Swiss will vote not to buy new jets it will be a catastrophe for the Air Force. They won’t be allowed to buy new planes, which means that they only can use the more than 40 year old F-5, as well as the more than 20 year old F/A 18 Hornets. And they won’t be able to fly forever.

The first consequence will probably be, that a 24/7 service won’t be possible anymore. The 24/7 service of the Air Force isn’t very old though. In 2014, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 was hijacked by its Copilot. He landed the plane in Geneva at 6am. Since the Swiss Air Force was only fully operational during office hours by that time, the plane was being escorted by French and Italian planes. There was a big discussion afterwards and steps were taken to make sure, that the Air Force will be fully operational 24/7.

Imagine this situation taking place in a country like the United States. Imagine if US citizens had the power to decide, whether their Air Force should get new planes and thus whether their Air Force should exist in the future or not.

Direct Democracy goes that far. The Swiss will decide whether their Air Force will have a future. It’s going to be a thrilling time of campaigning.

What do you guys think about this story? Do you think its good, that the citizens of a country can actually decide what they want, or do you think its better that some topics are being decided without public’s consent?

This topic turned out much longer than I thought it would. I hope you found it interesting to read and to learn something about the Air Force of another country.

Have a great day or night, and Happy Landings!



I am personally against that system in Switzerland. People are not nearly as informed as politicians, who spend their entire lives making themselves more informed. That is why we elect them to run the government. When citizens are given that kind of power, they aren’t always going to act in their own best interest.

Do you know what the polls are projecting for the vote (if they exist)? I’d be curious to know.


This is actually very interesting! Thank you very much for the insight into the Swiss governmental system. I think the direct democracy is actually very good but as with all things, it has positives and negatives. Hopefully the people of Switzerland realise the need to protect their airspace!

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I agree with you. You’re welcome!

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There are some very interesting examples regarding that statement:

We voted:

  • Against an additional week of payed vacation
  • Against an unconditional basic income
  • Against lower weekly hours of work

Yes, there are projections beeing made. For the vote about the new jets for the Air Force there are none at the moment though since the vote is too far away.

Personally I think that the result will be in favor for them. The problem with the Saab Gripen vote was the aircraft type. It’s good that we now only decide whether we get new planes or not. The decision about the exact type needs to me made by experts.


I remember that even some military officers were against the Gripen considering the plane not good for our army. And Yes I’m proud that citizens have the power. There are a lot votations in witch whe agree to pay more taxes for a collective goal: Gotthard tunnel, for the public television,…

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All I can say is… GRIPPEN!

No but seriously now our army in Switzerland does look a bit ridiculous sometimes… it looks bad because lots of people think we don’t need it and not much buget is put in it. For example the fact that the pilots only operate on office hours which people will just laugh at.

Here is my point (exaggerated)

(By the way The RTS radio télévision suisse made lots of those videos and a lot are making fun of the army)

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That being said democracy will always have problems… want to remove democracy? You can’t… people will never agree to loose a right they have. It can’t work.

The other solution is instead of giving the people the possibility to choose is to only give a person or small group of people the possibility to choose. Those people would depend on what’s being voted. Although that’s not good either. Let’s say we’re voting on getting rid of nuclear. People like you and me often want to stop nuclear because they think it’s dangerous (that’s not my opinion, but anyway) if instead of letting them vote you give the chance only to professionals, they’ll never say it’s dangerous simply because they’d loose their job…

Otherwise instead of putting professionals you put the same people that vote all the time… well you come back to the problem that no one can know everything on every subject.

If anyone doesn’t agree with what I said please tell me I’m always open to hear other points of view thanks!

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This just applies in the best case of politicians. To give you an example, in Germany a (female) family minister was chosen to be head of the military. She has no clue, legit.
However, since a lot of money was spent wrong, we now have the only firearms which can shoot around a corner, since the gun bends when being fired :D


I live in Switzerland and I heard about this vote a few days ago. You made a clear and concise explanation about the situation , good job !
Direct democracy is a topic of major discussion here in Switzerland, some people are against it, others are totally fine with it. In my opinion, I think that Swiss political system is quite amazing and unique. It let people interact directly with the government and even contribute to, by proposing some laws or modifications of pre-existent laws. The only disadvantage I can see and feel (every time we have to vote), is that people tend to vote with their emotions and not “with their brain”. Political parties know that, and they try to influence public opinion with “emotional propaganda” (it’s not really propaganda, but you see what I mean, they just yell what people want to hear). I just think people should be better informed before voting and not always listening to who is screaming loudly what they should vote. Of course, it’s not the case for everyone, but still, mass media and constant audiovisual information is leading to a poor intellectual work during vote time, but this is more of a philosophical question.

About the Swiss Air Force vote, the situation is about to be confusing. The parliament wants to spend 8 billion to buy 30 new jet fighters + a ground-air defence system. The chosen jets are the following:

  1. Gripen
  2. Rafale
  3. Eurofighter Typhoon
  4. Super Hornet
  5. F-35
    As you said, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight incident has led to a poor popular opinion about the air security, as the French and Italians had to do the Swiss job. The main issue is that people want this money to be better used somewhere else. What they don’t understand, is that 8 billion can’t really fix some other problem in the country (like health insurance or elderly insurance). Plus, people ask themselves, does Switzerland really need this amount of air force to protect this tiny territory? Is (political)war still the same as fifty years ago? Can air force protect the citizens against ground terrorism?
    All those questions make the vote hard to decide, but the discussions about it are interesting ! Personally, it’s think the Eurofighter would do the job just fine.

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