Switzerland has been neutral since 1815, but has a policy of remaining sufficiently militarily strong so that it would be an unattractive prospect for any aggressor to try and overrun this landlocked European nation.
In search of a new fighter aircraft, the Swiss government looked at the Dassault Mirage 2000, the Israel Aircraft Industries Lavi, the Northrop F-20, and the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen. These aircraft were all deemed unsuitable to Swiss requirements. In April/May of 1988, the Swiss government held a fly-off between the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18. In October of 1988, the government of Switzerland announced that the Hornet would be the next fighter of the Schweizerische Flugwaffe/Troupe d'Aviation Suisse (Swiss Air Force). 34 F/A-18C and D aircraft powered by F404-GE-402 turbofans were to equip three squadrons of the Swiss Air Force beginning in 1993. They will replace the Mirage IIIS and will fly alongside the Northrop F-5E Tigers acquired during the early 1980s.
In 1991, the competition was reopened so that the MiG-29 and the Dassault Mirage 2000-5 could be considered. However, even a personal appeal on the part of French President Francois Mitterand could not overturn the original plan to buy 26 F/A-18Cs and 8 F/A-18Ds. The formal contract was expected to be signed in 1992. However, the Hornet order remained controversial, and was even the subject of a popular referendum held on June 6, 1993, which finally approved the program.
The delay allowed Switzerland to specify the APG-73 radar for its Hornets, which were to be delivered between 1996 and 1999. The Swiss Hornets are optimized for the air defense role and are armed with the AIM-120B AMRAAM and the AIM-9P/5 Sidewinder. Three squadrons at Payerne, Sion, and Meiringen were scheduled to operate the Hornets in the air defense role, replacing the Mirage IIIS and allowing some of the F-5E/F Tiger IIs to be transferred to ground attack roles.
The first F-18D (serial number J-5231) and the first F-18C (serial number J-5001) were to be built by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) in St. Louis and were to be used for preliminary trials and training, but the remainder of the order (7 F-18Ds and 25 F-18Cs) were to be assembled in Switzerland by Schweizer Flugzeuge und System AG (Swiss Aircraft and Systems Company, formerly known as F+W) at Emmen.
The first F-18D for the Swiss Air Force (J-5231) took off on its maiden flight at St. Louis on January 20, 1996. The first F-18C (J-5001) flew for the first time at St. Louis on April 8, 1996. Both planes underwent weapons system trsting at Patuxent River, MD and at China Lake, California before being delivered to Switzerland.
The first Swiss-built Hornet, a F-18D (J-5232) was formally handed over to the Schweizerisch Luftwaffe on January 23, 1997. The first Swiss-built F-18C (J-5002) made its maiden flight on October 3, 1996. First to be issued with the Hornet was No. 17 Squadron based at Payerne. This squadron was commissioned in September of 1997. The second squadron to transition to the Hornet was No. 18, also based at Payerne, replacing the F-5E/F in 1998. The third and final squadron to re-equip with the Hornet was 11 Squadron at Alpnach, which traded in its Tigers for Hornets in November 1999.
The final F/A-18C (serial number J-5026) of the order for 34 Hornets was delivered on December 2, 1999. Funding is planned for a second batch of Swiss Hornets, which will be built to F/A-18C/D standards which will make them capable of multirole operations. This will make it possible to replace 18 Mirage IIIRS used in tactical reconnaissance as well as the remaining F-5s in ground attack roles.
The government of Switzerland is interesed in acquiring 8-11 more F/A-18 Hornets to replace the Swiss Air Force Mirages which are currently being retired. However, the F/A-18C/D production line has now been closed to make way for F/A-18E/F Super Hornet production, and it will be difficult for new builds to be acquired. However, a leasing option may be explored.