ZURICH, July 6 (Reuters) - Switzerland on Friday kicked off a multibillion-franc competition to replace its ageing fleet of F-5 fighter jets, and older model F/A-18 fighters, inviting five European and U.S. weapons makers to submit bids by January.
The Swiss defence ministry asked for bids from European aerospace group Airbus, France's Dassault and Sweden's Saab, as well as Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the United States.
Under its Air2030 programme, Switzerland is seeking to procure new combat aircraft and ground-based air defenses in a programme valued at up to 8 billion Swiss francs ($8.08 billion).
As well as for defence, neutral Switzerland uses fighter jets to police the skies during events like the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Switzerland needs to replace its fleet of Boeing McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C and D Hornets and outdated Northrop F-5 Tigers, all of which are scheduled to be retired in the 2020s.
In November, it said it wants the new planes to be delivered by 2025.
After years of military spending cuts in Europe, weapons makers are keeping close tabs on the Swiss process, as well as other fighter tenders in Belgium, Finland, Germany and at some future point, Poland.
Airbus Defence and Space Chief Executive Dirk Hoke on Friday said his company was far more upbeat about the prospects for its Eurofighter Typhoon than it had been even several years ago.
For Switzerland, the Eurofighter will square off against Dassault's Rafale, Saab's Gripen, Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed's F-35, the only contender that offers radar-evading stealth capabilities.
Switzerland had initially chosen the Saab Gripen E fighter but had to cancel that order after a 2014 referendum rejected the choice.
The Swiss procurement agency said it was asking the firms to submit pricing for 30 or 40 planes, including logistics and guided missiles, as well as an assessment of the number of aircraft necessary to fulfil the Swiss Air Force's needs.
The manufacturers have until January 2019 to submit an offer, after which the planes will undergo tests and a second tender round will be opened, with an eye to finishing its assessment by the end of 2020. ($1 = 0.9895 Swiss francs) (Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)