Rafale vs. F-35: Why Switzerland Chose American Stealth Over France’s Top Fighter

On June 30, 2021, the Swiss Air Force announced the result of its tender to acquire a new generation of fighter jets, which saw all but one of the fighters in production in the Western world compete for a contract worth over $7 billion. The new fighters will replace Switzerland's ageing fleet of F-5E and F-18C lightweight jets, with the three leading contenders having included the American F-18E and F-35 and the French Rafale. The winner selected was the most modern design, and the only fighter in production in the Western world with fifth generation capabilities, the F-35A. With many analysts having speculated that the French Rafale would be selected, a comparison of the two jets’ capabilities provides insight into the reasons behind the Swiss decision. 

Having first flown in 1986, and even then being far from outstanding compared to the latest American and Soviet designs, the Rafale is already a relatively old airframe with a limited capacity to incorporate further upgrades. This is particularly true compared to the F-35 which is only at the beginning of its development cycle and is expected to see upgrades and remain in production for two decades or more. Despite the F-35 being a considerably heavier fighter, and a much more advanced one, the much larger scale of production and greater efficiency of the U.S. defence sector have allowed it to be offered at a similar price to the Rafale, with the two competing for multiple tenders and the F-35 consistently prevailing. Moreover, the discrepancy in engine performance means that the F-35’s single F135 engine produces more thrust than the Rafale’s two M88 engines combined. 

Switzerland already operates the maintenance infrastructure and armaments for American fighters, and with the Rafale being the only fighter in the competition that is not compatible with U.S. munitions purchasing the aircraft would require the country to dispose of all its existing inventory. Close ties between the U.S. and Swiss militaries built up over decades would also potentially be eroded should the latter transition to using non-American fighter aircraft. The Rafale had a number of significant benefits of its own, however, including lower maintenance requirements, access to superior air to air missiles in the form of the Meteor, and the fact that it is already fully combat ready. The F-35, by contrast, has only a very limited initial operating capability and is still far from ready for even medium intensity engagements. With Switzerland unlikely to enter into any conflict in the near future, this is not a major issue, while the F-35 can be made compatible with the Meteor although its standard long range air to air missile is the much shorter ranged AIM-120D. The Rafale also has the advantage of being more independent, in that no restrictions are placed by France on how it can be used, while the F-35’s use is regulated more strictly and the fighter has even been found to spy on its European operators and send information back to the U.S. 

Ultimately the Rafale has struggled to compete against the F-35 internationally, even in Belgium’s case when France offered to re-invest the full sum of the contract’s value back into the Belgian economy if the older French jet was chosen. The Rafale has also failed to compete against other American fighters such as the F-16E and F-15 in tenders in Singapore, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. The fighter has gained contracts in Greece and Croatia, both of which were offered second hand fighters and the former which was offered several fighters free of charge. It has also gained contracts in Egypt, Qatar and India, none of which were offered the F-35. As a much more developed economy than any of the Rafale’s prior clients, however, prevailing trends would indicate that Switzerland would choose the more sophisticated F-35.

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