PAYERNE AIR BASE, Switzerland ― Somewhere in Switzerland inside a mountain, there is a secret air base in which a Swiss Air Force pilot fires up the engines of an F/A-18 Hornet, the camouflaged doors slide open and the fighter jet takes off.
The pilot flies an air patrol, returns and lands just outside the base. A crane rotates the F/A-18 and places the fighter on a platform, which brings the plane back into military silence under the mountain. The stealthy doors close until the next flight.
Swiss soldiers have occasionally referred to the base on social media and have been asked to delete their mention. As a senior Swiss officer told Defense News on March 27, the name and location of the base are classified information.
That air base may evoke a James Bond film, but the Swiss Armed Forces operate the site as part of its national air defense, which is entering a characteristically large modernization drive.
The Air Force will arm the new fighter with air-to-air missiles, as the main mission is to secure Swiss airspace. There is merely “discussion” of arming the jet with air-to-ground missiles, as that capability is politically sensitive in Switzerland and would add to the cost of acquisition.
The 30-strong fleet of F/A-18s is armed with AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles and a cannon. The Air Force plans to fly the F/A-18 until 2030 and operate the new aircraft alongside its existing fleet.
The Air Force flies the F-5 Tiger as the aggressor during exercises with the F/A-18, and the single-engine jet also makes up the Patrouille Swiss air display team. The 26-strong fleet of F-5s no longer flies air patrol.
The Air Force has started to consider a new training course tied to acquiring the new fighter, said Col. Simone Rossi, who runs the training center at the air base here. Only full-time professional pilots fly the F/A-18 — not part-time reservists.
The latter are called up for national service and are then recalled each year to serve three weeks as reservists.
There are some 3,000 professional personnel, while the rest of the approximately 100,000-strong Armed Forces are made up of conscripts and part-time reservists. Swiss forces effectively operate a citizen-soldier army, where each reservist must keep a Sieg automatic rifle and empty magazine clips at home, along with battledress, bulletproof vest, two pairs of boots and a gas mask. The reservists are expected to regularly attend shooting practice at the local gun clubs.
The military rations include a Swiss Army chocolate bar, wrapped in the national colors of red and white.
A Swiss modernization drive seeks to field a better-equipped and better-trained force, but fewer in number than in the past.
The short list for the Swiss competition comprises the Airbus Eurofighter, the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-35A.
Train fares and accommodation were paid for by Presence Switzerland, part of the Department of Foreign Affairs.