Switzerland's $6.5 bln fighter decision nears after years of delay

ZURICH, June 30 (Reuters) - Switzerland’s government was meeting on Wednesday to pick a next-generation fighter plane after a decade-long political tug-of-war over a 6 billion Swiss franc ($6.5 billion) contest among bidders from Europe and the United States.

Contenders include the Rafale from France’s Dassault , Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin’s F35-A Lightning II and the four-nation Eurofighter built by Germany and Spain backed Airbus, Italy’s Leonardo and Britain’s BAE Systems.

Swiss television reported last week that the F-35 provided the best technical and financial features in a Swiss evaluation, but the final decision was still open.

A deal by Switzerland with a European manufacturer could be seen as an attempt by Bern to heal relations with the European Union after the collapse of talks earlier this year about a new agreement to regulate their ties, analysts said.

Neutral Switzerland last year narrowly approved the funding for new fighters in a national referendum.

Opinion polls had shown the plan would easily win approval in a country where armed neutrality is a tradition, but only 50.2% of voters approved the funding in September.

The result is being closely watched as the first of three face-offs ahead of procurement decisions in Finland and Canada.

Switzerland’s latest bid to procure fighters is driven by a pressing need to replace ageing Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II and its 30 Boeing F/A-18 Hornet combat jets, which go out of service in 2030.

Both are suffering from fatigue and serviceability problems that have led to groundings here, according to Gareth Jennings, aviation editor at defence publication Jane's.

Voters seven years ago rejected the purchase of Gripen jets from Sweden’s Saab and anti-arms campaigners have argued that Switzerland, which last fought a foreign war more than 200 years ago and has no discernable enemies, does not need cutting-edge fighters

But supporters have said Switzerland needs to be able to protect itself without relying on others. (Writing by John Revill and Tim Hepher; Editing by Alexander Smith)