Switzerland - Winds of Change

Posted in Europe | 21-Oct-04 | Author: Dieter Farwick

As soldiers of the northern neighbor of Switzerland, we have always regarded Switzerland and its soldiers with a feeling of respect and envy. There was the saying that Switzerland does not have an army but is an army.

Supported by mountainous terrain, small valleys and numerous rivers and lakes, Switzerland was a huge fortification – a heavily armed hedgehog. To serve in the Swiss army was an honor and a high officer’s rank of reserve was a prerequisite for any career in industry or in the well known Swiss banks. The militia formed the glue between the army and society. Armed neutrality was the overriding doctrine.

Switzerland - still an armed hedgehog ?

This seems to be history. The Swiss army feels the winds of change. The threat of the Cold War is gone. The army has lost some of its public support. Reductions in the number of soldiers and in the field of financial resources became the peace dividend.

On the other hand – globalization is not to be restricted to the economy. It embraces all walks of life. Worldwide risks and threats can no longer be kept at arms length. Switzerland is not an island in the world of global terror and organized crime.

Nowadays in Switzerland there is controversy over how to cope with the new challenges. The bone of contention is cooperation. Where does it start and where does it end? The domestic cooperation between the various agencies is not the problem – the problem lies in international cooperation.

There is one taboo: neutrality. Is it a violation of Swiss neutrality to become a member of the UN, the EU and NATO? Membership in the UN in 2002 as 190th state was the result of a years’ long battle. The attempts to win the support of the Swiss to join the EU have failed several times. Membership in NATO is far beyond the horizon.

It came by surprise that Switzerland was able to join the Partnership for Peace Program – led by NATO. In the eyes of many Swiss, this is already unacceptable as well as the commitment of Swiss soldiers abroad. This commitment started at a very low level in 1999. A Swiss army company – without arms at the start – was integrated in an Austrian battalion that was under the command and control of a German brigade.

There are public requirements as well as in parliament to stop any military commitment abroad. On January 1, 2004, Switzerland began the program “Army XXI” – with less soldiers and weapons. It is obvious though that the Swiss forces face huge problems to fulfill their three main missions.

Now, the discussion will focus on the question of whether or not the current missions of the armed forces can be solved by a single neutral nation. My personal view: It is not possible with the money that Swiss forces are appropriated today. The program “Army XXI” was based upon a financial platform of 4,3 billion Swiss franks. In a referendum, the Swiss voted to support this concept and the finances.

Now, the Swiss forces get less than 4 billion. The number of cadres to serve in exercises is declining. The relatively small cadre of officers and non-commissioned career officers career must shoulder a huge burden in training the militia, which is another taboo. Weapons programs are cut, postponed or even cancelled.

Neutrality and militia are seen as the central pillars of Switzerland. It will take some more years and perhaps more military problems caused by the gap between missions and capabilities before a new chapter of international co-operation can be opened in Switzerland.

We can offer you with this newsletter an insight into the Swiss army doctrine. Peter Forster is a Reserve Colonel in the Swiss army, journalist and author. He is a member of our International Advisory Board.