Academic journal article Military Review

Swiss Armed Forces and the Challenges of the 21st Century

Academic journal article Military Review

Swiss Armed Forces and the Challenges of the 21st Century

Article excerpt

MILITARY transformation, which is an ongoing process in most Western countries, requires much effort and engenders significant debate and controversy. Despite its small, uniquely geopolitical sphere of influence and its traditional political neutrality, Switzerland finds itself engaged in military reform similar to that of other Western countries.

Throughout the Cold War, Switzerland maintained a defensive capability and, like no other country in Europe, prepared itself to defeat a Warsaw Pact offensive. The principles of the Swiss Armed Forces, by which the country gained independence in 1648, were applied to Swiss political, economic, and military structures.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Switzerland mobilized its forces within 24 hours and fielded 650,000 soldiers in days. The forces were organized into 4 army corps equipped with 1,000 tanks, 1,500 armored personnel carriers, 1,300 105- and 155-millimeter artillery pieces, 1,500 antitank guns, and 2,000 antiaircraft guns. In addition, Switzerland's air forces mobilized 300 aircraft. In total, 10 percent of the population was prepared to ardently defend Swiss territories.

As early as the 1950s, the national defense plan included destroying key strategic infrastructures and constructing private and public shelters to protect the population against nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. All bridges, tunnels, and highways and most of the industrial base could be destroyed within a few hours with explosive charges pre-positioned in the immediate vicinity. Even 19th-century landmark tunnels--St. Gotthard and Simplon--would have been destroyed without any reservation.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the emergence of asymmetrical threats caused the Swiss Government and its citizen-soldiers to reflect on a national defense strategy. The Armed Forces transformation has since become a subject of permanent discussion in the media and on the political scene.

Armed Forces of '95

For centuries, Switzerland has been a multicultural democracy enjoying military neutrality. (1) This type of system made it difficult to initiate change. For example, Switzerland took more than 5 years to draft the first military reform program in response to the changing global environment. The military's size and its close integration into society contributed to delaying the reform, and political insecurity associated with a lengthy voting process concerning military issues exacerbated the situation. The process eventually resulted in the approval of sustaining 34 combat fighter planes and the refusal to commit troops under UN authority.

Political decisions made before the first military transformation initiative included troop cutbacks from 650,000 to 400,000 soldiers, basic training reduced from 17 to 15 weeks, and the mandatory retirement age lowered from 55 to 42. These measures did not take into consideration all the Armed Forces' requirements, however. They sacrificed the military's maneuver flexibility for the benefit of political consensus, which resulted in the reform campaign slogan: "More muscles and less fat." The Armed Forces of '95 reform led to an organization focused almost exclusively on high-intensity conflicts, leaving little flexibility with which to deal with low-intensity and nonconventional threats.

The reform revealed the military's inability to transform and questioned the use of World War II vintage doctrine. Since 1997, Switzerland has eliminated obsolete systems such as Bloodhound missiles, unmotorized artillery, and tanks without stabilized turrets, but true transformation of the Swiss military requires more fundamental reforms.

Four Steps to Transformation

The Swiss Federal Council envisioned a four-step transformation process to take place between 1996 and 2003. The first step was to establish a long-term perspective with the 1996 Brunner Commission, which included politicians, economists, scientists, and other well-known people. …

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