Earlier this month, the Swiss government revealed – perhaps earlier than it would have liked – that its national aerobatic team, the Patrouille Suisse, would be facing disbandment in 2016.
With the retirement of its F-5 Tigers, and the planned introduction of its replacement, the Saab Gripen, the Swiss Air Force can no longer really justify retaining a unit as an aerobatic team. It was of course inevitable, but that didn’t stop the aviation-loving Swiss pouring scorn over the country’s defense minister.
The Patrouille Suisse are an icon in Switzerland and perform to hundreds of thousands of spectators each year, not only at home, but abroad, too. The team was unique; it was the only European team still using front-line combat aircraft as their mount, and their display was extraordinarily good, as anyone who ever saw them perform at their gunnery exercise in Axalp will attest.
But their planned disbandment raises the delicate question of whether such display teams truly have a future, at least in Europe.
Europe has a strong heritage of aerobatic teams, and during the Cold War, it seemed every country had at least one. But the cost of fuel and defense cuts has shrunk the numbers steadily down leaving the established teams such as the U.K.’s Red Arrows, the French Patrouille de France or Italy’s flamboyant Frecce Tricolori.
Such teams are seen as ambassadors of their countries and one can only imagine the public outcry if they were to be cut from the budget. But it’s a decision that may one day have to be made. Even in the U.S., if sequestration does arise, the Navy has already reportedly looked at shelving the Blue Angels team’s 2013 airshow season to save money.
With today’s levels of defense spending, it must be extremely difficult to justify holding on to a squadron of aircraft and the support that goes with it to simply ‘fly the flag’ when front line squadrons of combat aircraft are being disbanded. Yet defense ministries must be struggling with this issue every time their budget days come around.
Several countries are re-building their training fleets with smaller numbers of more technically advanced trainers, such as the Hawk T2 for the U.K. and the Aermacchi M346 for Italy, but it’s unlikely the display teams will convert to these types forcing them to continue flying their older types for their remaining and finite lives.
There are also signs that some countries are re-examining how they do their training. Swiss pilots train on the Pilatus PC-21 turboprop and then jump straight into the F/A-18 Hornet or the Tiger and other countries may look at a similar option and eliminate the jet trainer altogether.
There is also a moral and a morale argument: How is it fair that an entire squadron of pilots and ground crew will never be deployed into combat, when other parts of the armed forces are being deployed every 18 months or two years (if you take the U.K.’s involvement in Afghanistan as an example)?
If you believe the U.K. national papers, the Red Arrows have twice come close to facing the axe. In both cases it turned out to be untrue and Prime Minister David Cameron has said the team are secure as long as he is in power, so that’s until 2015 for now.
Those who argue that it is worth retaining a national aerobatic team should look at Spain and Finland whose teams, the Patrulla Aguila and the Midnight Hawks respectively are volunteer teams. The pilots train as a team in their free time rather than having an established unit.
Air arms increasingly have to do more with less. Sweating their assets and the wrong budget decision can have a dramatic effect on capability and aerobatic teams are not worth the effort if they come at the expense of something more critical.