According to aviation myth, Swiss fighter pilots wait in their cockpits around the clock in secret mountain caverns, ready to yell “Chocks out!” (or the French, German, or Italian equivalent) when word comes of an intruder. Then they burst from their caves like bats on afterburners, airborne and wheels up a few meters from the granite wall. It is a wonderful image, but reality is better.
Reality, on this hot, hazy spring afternoon, is a cavern at the Swiss air force base at Buochs, south of Lucerne. You reach it by taking a left between the Evinrude and Volvo-Fiat dealers, then another left along the base of the mountain that flanks the aerodrome. And there, almost hidden in an embrace of trees, a net made of artificial leaves floats above a recessed concrete and metal face cut into the mountain. Dappled light blurs the rust and green camouflage. A sharply contrasting red sign attached to the steel wall yells STOP! at any unauthorized wanderers, and, by an open door in the metal face, a young sentry in battle fatigues reinforces the idea with a cradled Sturmgewels 90 assault rifle.
The cavern belongs, more or less, to Jean Vienne, whose fatigues bear the collar patch of a warrant officer. He is a military instructor at Buochs, where a 150-hour training course on cavern operations is just coming to an end. Most of the people in the class—pilots, ground crew, armed sentinels—are militia, part of Switzerland’s citizen-soldiery, doing their compulsory military service at a rate of a week or three a year.
Not Vienne. He is a professional soldier, one of the relative handful of lifers who are the reliable heart of the Swiss armed forces. He has spent 25 years in the army, which owns and operates the caverns in which the air force caches its fighters, and he specializes in aircraft electrical systems. Born in the Netherlands of Swiss parents, Vienne speaks the three main languages of Switzerland, plus Dutch and English, which makes him a good man to have with you in the field.
The narrow, guarded entrance opens into a hall about the size of a two-lane tunnel, of the kind that abound in Switzerland’s road system, its arched ceiling illuminated with banks of lights. The difference is that this tunnel has a polished concrete floor, painted with curving tracks of red and green, labeled “Tiger” and “Mirage.” The smooth curve of the ceiling is broken here and there by thick hanging bulkheads with spaces cut out to allow the passage of airplanes.
Farther into the cavern, the tunnel snakes off to the right—a protective offset, should anyone toss a bomb through the cavern door—and then straightens to a second metal door painted with yellow and black chevrons that blocks the way like a great cork in a bottle. Beyond this seal lies the amazing vault where the aircraft wait.
Here the arched ceiling seems to reach to the vanishing point in a haze of light. What look to be a dozen gray Northrop F-5 Tigers bearing the Swiss cross stand on the gleaming floor, arranged in closely packed echelons, noses forward. The front four aircraft have pilots in the cockpits, preparing the Tigers for flight, and also ground crew crawling busily over them.
The cavern, Vienne notes, penetrates about a thousand feet into the mountain and is designed to withstand overpressures (from bomb blasts) of 15 bars—that is, 15 times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level—which is about 220 pounds per square inch. Racks on the walls hold drop tanks and other external stores. Overhead, a crane that can lift, transport, and rotate airplanes in the narrow tube rides on a track along the centerline of the tunnel. Beyond the farthest airplane is another bulkhead, and, beyond that, one presumes, are quarters, supplies, arsenals—the airplanes can be fully replenished with fuel, oxygen, and armaments in this enormous, hidden hive.
Now the chevroned metal door splits in the center, and the two halves glide into the cavern walls. What had seemed to be metal blast shields along the bases of the doors are covers for the groove in the floor, and, as the doors slide outward, the covers drop into place—plop, plop, plop—as precisely as the steps of an escapement in a fine watch.
Four tractors hitched to the manned Tigers’ nose gear begin towing the airplanes toward the light, careful to follow the painted floor line marked “Tiger,” as clearances are tight. Each airplane is trailed by its ground crew, through the narrow curve of the “S,” out through the huge entry doors. A few hundred feet from the cavern, the four Tigers fire up and are sent on their way. Within three minutes, they are climbing out of the valley, two by two.
It is not the lightning-quick launch depicted in comic books, and the pilots will not spend very long in the air, at the ready; instead, they will fly their sortie and return to another nest here in Buochs or in one of the other military fields dotting the country. And then everyone but Vienne will go home. The cavern is a wartime base, in a nation that has not been at war for centuries, and yet has been armed the entire time, just in case.
Years ago, signs near Swiss military air fields warned passersby against photographing anything. Then, in 1991, the signs were changed, allowing photos of anything visible from public ground. And then the signs just disappeared. Now Swiss air bases are among the most open in the world, and U.S. journalists are welcomed into secret caverns. The gradual thaw is the result of global changes, certainly, but also of events in Switzerland’s history.
In the 1980s, the Swiss air force’s frontline interceptors were Dassault’s Mirage III and Northrop’s F-5 Tiger. The Mirage is a 1960s design but formidably supersonic, and the F-5 offered simplicity, speed, and a radar cross-section so small that the fighter is still hard to hit. But in a world awash with supersonic BVR—beyond visual range—shooters, the Tigers and Mirages were inadequate. In 1986, the Swiss air force went shopping for something better and, in October of 1988, opted for the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) twin-engine F/A-18 Hornet. Parliament duly appropriated funds for a buy of 26 single-seat C models and eight two-seat D models. Whereupon little Switzerland became a Hornet’s nest of controversy.
Groups the government characterizes as left-wing and environmental mounted an intensive anti-aircraft campaign, gathering signatures for a national referendum on whether the country should modernize the air force. In June of 1993, not quite five years after the decision to buy the Hornets, the matter was put to a popular vote (the question phrased, as referenda often are, so that a “no” vote actually said “yes” to the Hornets). The new aircraft carried 57 percent.
The first Hornet, a D model, arrived in Switzerland in December 1996, followed in early 1997 by a C model, and then by 32 kits for assembly at the sprawling government-owned Swiss Aircraft and Systems Company, once a federal factory, in Emmen, near Lucerne.
The delay proved to be no bad thing, for it allowed the Swiss to acquire the superior APG-73 radar and the more powerful General Electric F404-GE-402 engine of the C and D models. Coincidentally, 1997 was the year the Swiss air force phased out its cold war tactical language, an argot called Bambini, fashioned from German, French, and Italian, in favor of a new Bambini, called English.
The Swiss flying service was established just before the 1914 assassinations of Austrian royalty in Sarajevo. Nine pilots reported for duty near Bern’s Wankdorf stadium, some with their own airplanes and mechanics. But this fledgling air arm was a mere peripheral until the 1930s, when all the surrounding countries began strapping on winged weapons. The Swiss elevated their air force to branch status and began purchasing equipment: Messerschmitt 108s and 109s from Germany, along with three Junkers 52s and nearly 300 French Morane D-3800 and -3801 fighters, the last assembled at Emmen.
This invigorated force saw action early in June 1940, when it destroyed nine Me 110s violating Swiss air space. Three Swiss airmen were lost in the Luftwaffe vs. Luftwaffe skirmishes. After that, air combat was forbidden until October 1943, and no Swiss fighters have engaged an enemy since. Military fields moved into narrow alpine valleys—to Meiringen, Alpnach, Turtmann. The pastoral fields were cut by runways and dotted with low concrete and steel bunkers called Unterstands, covered with a layer of sod thick enough to root a stand of trees. By war’s end, the Swiss border had reportedly suffered 6,501 violations, and 244 foreign aircraft had landed, crashed, or been shot down.
In the late 1940s, the Swiss air force moved boldly into the Jet Age, buying 182 British de Havilland Vampires, a Barney Baxterish, twin-tailboom design. The Vampires joined some remnant Messerschmitts, Fieseler Storchs, Ju 52s, Morane C-3603s, AT-6s, and Mustangs, these last bought at a bargain-basement price from the U.S. Air Force. Soon the original Vampires, which would serve until 1990, were augmented by 250 de Havilland Venoms, flown until 1984.
If there has been a golden age of Swiss fighter aviation, however, it would have begun in the 1960s, with the arrival of the first Hawker Hunters. Long after the Vampires and Venoms and the rest had been consigned to the Swiss museum of flight in Dübendorf, or mounted on pedestals outside air bases, or scrapped, the Hunters would remain Switzerland’s all-purpose fighter—until the Mirages and Tigers took over.
Payerne is Switzerland’s largest military field, spread across high, flat meadows southwest of Bern and, like most bases today, accessible to all. Civilians park along the drainage ditches near the runway to watch the comings and goings of Switzerland’s newest and hottest interceptors, the Hornets, which live in drive-through hangars called boxes. Earth-covered Unterstands rise like druid mounds but are almost invisible against the surrounding farmland.
Because in Switzerland one always looks for the object hidden in plain view, I note that the auto route paralleling the main runway lacks the usual edelweiss hedge along its centerline. The traffic streams are separated by a metal fence whose removal transforms the road into another long, unobstructed runway. Inside the base proper, which is guarded by a Vampire on a pedestal, a new glass and steel building, housing offices and the Hornet simulator, rises from a field of ancient wooden billets.
Perhaps the best known Hornet pilot in Switzerland is Major Stephane Rapaz, 39, one of two selected for training at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, and the pilot who showed off the Swiss Hornet at foreign airshows. But he is also an experienced Hunter and F-5 hand, with five years in the Patrouille Suisse, the national aerobatic demonstration team.
Talking over coffee in the base canteen, Rapaz moves seamlessly from his native French to German to the assured colloquial American you’d expect from a Swiss pilot who trained with the U.S. Navy and is carrier qualified. In four years he’s logged about 800 hours in the F/A-18, very little of it spent in transit. “The good part of our way of operating,” he says, “is we are close to training areas. Ninety percent is training.” On the other hand, it means pilots get little experience in air-to-air refueling. “We have no tankers, no buddy-buddy Hornet to Hornet. We had training in the U.S., but we didn’t stay current.” In fact, as he spoke, the Swiss were about to start a brief exercise with the French air force, in which Swiss F/A-18s would practice drinking from French KC-135s and fly against Mirages from Dijon.
“We have about 20 memos of understanding with every country around us for training,” he explains. Switzerland offers a narrow practice area about 50 miles long, which is not much ground for fast jets and imposes a host of other constraints. Going supersonic below 30,000 feet is forbidden—a sonic boom lights up the air force switchboard with complaints of shattered windows and cows gone berserk—and pilots may only rarely drop below a thousand feet.
Moreover, the airspace over Switzerland is the aeronautical center of Europe and is dark with traffic. If you superimpose a day’s flight tracks on a map of Switzerland, the country simply disappears. Controlling this mass of moving metal is a civilian system operating in parallel with a military one. “In the training area,” explains Rapaz, “the military guy’s coordinating with European Control Center. But when you’re four against four and they bring a guy across your area at flight level 300…” He rolls his eyes. A new system called HELCO (from Helvetica Control) is supposed to help by merging military and civilian air traffic control.
The only way the Swiss Hornets can break into the open is to go overseas, as they do each June for Exercise Norka. Run out of Royal Air Force Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, Norka offers space-challenged military pilots a chance to hone and measure their skills over the British Aerospace Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation range in the North Sea.
In the old days, the Swiss would arrive in their plump Hunters, lean Tigers, and swift Miros to fly against the best Europe had to offer. Now they travel to Waddington in a swarm of C and D Hornets and their company of F-5s, including a pair wearing the brilliant red and white livery of the Patrouille Suisse, to act the enemy.
Despite their reputation for doing everything their own way, the Swiss bought Hornets that are pretty much standard Navy issue. The differences are a stronger titanium alloy in the fuselage main bulkheads, to keep the Hornets in service 30 years, and the substitution of an Emmen-designed low-drag weapons pylon for the stock multi-purpose stump on the U.S. F/A-18, which, Rapaz says, “was close to a garage door” in terms of drag. In doing this, the Swiss Hornets effectively abandoned the “A” in F/A-18, with the air-ground role passing, for the moment, to the F-5. This is not to say they launch light. The Swiss Hornets can carry Sidewinders and as many as eight advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles.
Exercise Norka offers the Hornet drivers what the world cannot: war in the air, or at least a close approximation. On many days, four dozen airplanes are up, in various confrontational line-ups: four Tigers against two Hornets, or four Hornets against four Dutch F-16s, or pairs and quartets of Hornets against British Sea Harriers and Tornadoes.
Three operational Hornet squadrons of eight aircraft each stage from Payerne and Dübendorf, with the remaining Hornets kept in reserve. In an emergency, the aircraft would move to war bases—that is, the new, larger caverns now being blasted in mountainsides at Meiringen, Sion, and Payerne. These will be much like Vienne’s Tiger cave at Buochs, except that the beefy newcomer won’t be hoisted around by overhead cables, and permanent power units placed near the cavern entrance will speed engine starts.
Thus far, only one Hornet has been lost. In April 1999, a two-seater D model Hornet crashed, killing the two Swiss pilots aboard, and the incident reverberates through every conversation. In an air force that adds only six Hornet pilots per year, the loss was staggering.
The Swiss, while neutral for centuries, have never been what one would call violence-averse. Their medieval infantry was highly regarded, and it did much to enrich the homeland with the spoils of other people’s wars.
Even if the Swiss didn’t take sides in the 20th century, living neutral in the heart of Europe has been like living in the calm eye of the strongest hurricane. The eastern hinge of World War I’s Western Front reached almost to the Swiss border, and war threatened to spill into the Alps. A generation later, every conquest by Hitler caused the Swiss to shudder, believing they must be next, and not without reason; after the fall of France, the Germans thought it was time to relax and enjoy the new Nazi Europe. Switzerland bravely declined, and made its decision stick.
It could get away with such behavior because it had revived its ferocious infantry in the form of a citizen army, in which every able-bodied male must serve a minimum amount of active duty (about 300 days), and every militiaman keeps his rifle and a sealed box of ammo at home. Until recently, the armed forces numbered some 600,000, in a country of just over six million.
This force was then deployed in an area about half the size of South Carolina along a natural Maginot Line traversed only through high mountain passes, narrow valleys, and tunnels. Labyrinthine strongholds were scooped out of the country’s rocky innards for fortresses in the Sargans area, near the Austrian border; another at St. Goddard, the portal from the south; and a third at St. Maurice, near France. Around this iron triangle, hidden traps were set.
Should an intruder batter past the fortresses, he would find his prize exploding everywhere around him, as the Swiss would sever their railways, tunnels, bridges, and roads at several thousand permanent demolition points. The only way to cross Switzerland would be the hard way. Nobody wanted to wrestle the little porcupine.
No sooner had Nazi Germany gone away than a new threat materialized, which, while never expressed too baldly—no one cried “The Russians might be coming!”—definitely lay to the north and east. Hardly anyone believed that an attack on Western Europe would bypass Switzerland.
A more immediate problem was that the radioactive detritus of a nuclear exchange wouldn’t observe national frontiers. The Swiss built dwellings with massive foundations in which residents could take shelter. In rural villages, communal shelters were constructed, providing food, water, filtered air, beds, and baths. Should the cold war turn hot, 95 percent of the population would have a place to go. So would the jets, the first caverns for which were begun in 1949.
Until the late 1980s, Switzerland was the granite fortress of legend. Its mountain chains were likened to battleships run aground, and the valleys, with their runways to nowhere and secret redoubts, evoked stranded aircraft carriers. And, hidden in those caverns, pilots waited like medieval knights in gray armor, in their Vampires and Venoms, their Hunters and Tigers and Miros, for the war that never came.
For the last half of the 20th century, the Swiss military comprised, on the one hand, a fully democratic citizen’s militia, in which truckdrivers ordered bankers around, and, on the other, a gentleman’s club of officers whose success in the military and success in the civilian realm were as thoroughly intertwined as strands of DNA. Today Switzerland’s military and civilian worlds are decoupling.
Colonel Rudolf Wicki started flying jets for the Swiss air force more than 30 years ago, starting in the indestructible Hawker Hunter. “I flew them from ’66 to ’94,” he says. “The best ever Hunter. We could have sold them for the same price as new.” He shrugs. “Mostly they gave them to museums and the like.”
Wicki is the commander of the pilot school at Emmen. He has the aura of a stern friar until he smiles, and then you see that the friar may have a streak of mischief. He trains only about a dozen novices a year, and they arrive at his school only after a long gauntlet of screening and evaluation. In Switzerland, you settle on flight early—applications go in at age 16. For males, it’s one way to shape one’s inevitable military destiny. For women, service is voluntary. But, Wicki explains, “Once in the system, she stays in the system. She becomes like a male.” (About 10 percent of the 18,000 people in the Swiss air force are women, and some of these have joined the very small cadre of pilots, mainly in helicopters.)
Most years about 900 applications come in. These are winnowed by physical and psychological testing, the survivors given preparatory flying experience with the Swiss Air Club, which is led by the air force. “After the two courses, students have additional tests. Coordination. Five flights in the PC-7 simulator,” Wicki explains, referring to the Pilatus turboprop that has been Switzerland’s basic trainer since 1982. Candidates must also pass a “so-called social assessment by a 15-person board,” Wicki adds.
Only the serious survive. They then undergo 15 weeks of basic training and five weeks of flying, with 12 flights in the PC-7 at Locarno. Thereafter, they have seven weeks of training in PC-7s and six weeks at noncommissioned-officer school before they are graduated as corporals. Only then do they proceed to training in jets.
The move to jets is a big commitment that not everyone is willing to make. It requires a further 18 weeks of training—in British Aerospace Hawks. Student pilots then move up to F-5Es and –Fs for another 21 weeks. Some of the Locarno students skip the jets and move instead to transports, of which there are few—several Pilatus Porters, a few bizjets, and, soon, a couple of middle-size cargo transports. Others go to helicopter school to fly Sud-Aviation Alouette IIIs and Aérospatiale Super Pumas, which have become important not just for the military but for rescue, firefighting, and humanitarian airlifts.
Students transitioning to jets go from Locarno, in the southeastern lake country, to Sion, east of Lake Léman in the valley of the Rhone, or come here, to Emmen. On this day, a couple of pilots who look about 13 crouch on the wing of a Hawk as their instructor—a tall fellow about their age with a bleached carrot top and earring—introduces them to the aircraft with which they’ll spend the next 18 weeks.
Graduation is a watershed moment, for it is as fresh lieutenants that jet pilots must decide whether to opt for the militia—and perhaps a job as a Swissair pilot—or for a career as a professional military aviator. If they choose the latter, Wicki says, they are in for another three years, attending the professional pilot school at Dübendorf, where they qualify as flight instructors. Militia pilots stop flying at age 36, says Wicki, but professional pilots can continue flying jets until they are 55.
But times are changing. After 2001, pilots in the Swiss militia will be flying helicopters and transports, and only professionals will be in jet fighters. The Hornet is already restricted to professionals, who spend six to eight months training at bases in Payerne and Dübendorf, and in such foreign drills as Norka. The new airplane has become the heart of Swiss military aviation. The first increment of 34 Hornets, one supposes, is just the beginning.
Lieutenant Stefan Jäger, who on this day demonstrates the Hawk simulator to a visitor clinging to a catwalk behind his faintly illuminated cockpit, offers a case in point. He is just at the 800-hour mark, an instructor pilot in Hawks and F-5s. When he graduates from Dübendorf, he’ll go to the Hornet. Will he stay on? “I think,” he says, “I will do 10 years, then move on to Swissair.”
The listening friar is inscrutable. Ten years is a sizable commitment. Yet he must wonder: Why just 10, when you are one of only about 160 professional military pilots in all the land?
Without a cold war to give some direction to the notion of threat, many Swiss have begun to wonder just what the armed forces protect them from. For their part, the Swiss military seems to find the slack in the new world order uncomfortable, and it is trying to redefine Switzerland’s place in it. The new catch phrase is Security Through Cooperation, and it represents a stiff shot of Swiss politics: Without the possibility of nuclear war, there is no longer a reason to impose on the citizens the huge burdens of the past. Cooperation with other nations is the road back to stability.
“We face the same problems as France, Germany. We have things like Yugoslavia,” explains Brigadier Paul Kälin, the Swiss air force chief of staff. “You think crisis management. In the long term, we always have to be ready to defend the country. We don’t know what happens. But nobody is able to build up an armed force in…” and he snaps his fingers.
Kälin is a compact, middle-aged man, dressed in a blue business suit. He is also an interesting example of how the system works here, where the professional officer corps is filled not from a Swiss West Point or Air Force Academy (there is none) but from the militia. In the early 1980s, after 32 years as an electrical engineer, he decided to jump from the militia to a full-time military career. His office, in what people jokingly call “the Pentagon,” a six-story cruciform structure in Bern where the air force occupies one floor, is adorned with diplomas and trophies, including a certificate from the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.
“During the cold war,” he says, “we were really prepared to fight. Now you have to think in a different way. You have to talk to your neighbors. We are neutral, we will stay neutral.”
Neutrality with an attitude can take many forms. Swiss soldiers could escort Swiss products through Eastern Europe in 1919, and it was perfectly okay for Switzerland to join the League of Nations in 1920—but also okay to bail out eight years later, after the league’s efforts to sanction Italy failed. The Swiss greeted the advent of World War II with symmetry: insistence on neutrality plus general mobilization. When the war ended, they celebrated like victors, which, in a sense, they were.
The Swiss have sent military observers along the armistice line in Korea since 1953, and they are abroad today in the Middle East and some rough corners of the former Soviet Union. Neutrality was flexible enough to allow the Swiss to endorse economic sanctions against Iraq and grant transit rights for equipment and personnel heading for NATO-led multi-national forces in Bosnia, where a Swiss logistics unit serves. It did not allow overflights of NATO combat aircraft en route to the Balkans, but did allow Swiss air force teams, with Super Pumas, to help out in Albania.
Kälin sees this kind of outreach as the harbinger of greater international involvement. In a year or two, he believes, the popular vote will put Switzerland into the United Nations, which it has supported but never joined. But he doubts that the Swiss will vote for more than bilateral ties to the European Union. There is simply no way a neutral Switzerland can join the European Defense System or NATO, but the country will continue its membership in international security organizations, like NATO’s Partnership for Peace, that do not require from members a commitment of military assistance during war.
While peering outward, he says, the Swiss armed forces are also experiencing fundamental change—their ranks have been cut from 600,000 to 400,000, and more of these have chosen the military as a profession. The term of compulsory military service will probably be shortened so that men just hitting their stride in the private sector don’t have to interrupt their careers. Yet Kälin envisions a much more active role in international peacekeeping.
Nothing is certain. Like California, Switzerland is liberal in its use of referenda. All it takes is 50,000 signatures to secure a national vote on anything the government wants to do, and all constitutional amendments are voted on by the people, not parliamentary representatives. It means nothing can be done without the approval of the governed—and thus nothing can be done quickly. “We have to do anything in Switzerland step by step,” Kälin explains. “Convince the population. That’s the way it should be. Even the best idea—in Switzerland—needs time.”
As he speaks, referenda are gathering like alpine thunderstorms. One will determine whether troops will be allowed to go overseas armed for self-defense and training. Another wants to replace the militia with a professional force, a change that Kälin and many others deplore. “A militia army is not so ready as a professional army,” he says, “but a professional army is a little bit a closed society.” Still, the idea has a good deal of popular momentum.
“A group wants Switzerland without armed forces,” says Kälin. “At the end of the year, the government sends a report to parliament. The popular vote may be in 2002.” Leading up to that referendum, the army and air force are making their case to the people. “In Switzerland, you have to communicate with the population every day,” says Kälin. “Drop by drop. You have to explain the true, the reality. You see the feelings of the Swiss population. You see the eyes.”
On this day in Sion, the entire air force inventory is on the apron, wing to wing: a Super Puma, an Alouette III, an orange Pilatus PC-7 turbo-trainer, a yellow Pilatus PC-9 trainer, a Porter utility aircraft. A quarter-mile down the taxiways, Hawks and Tigers are in their boxes, along with a Mirage III with its chin drooping, revealing cameras. A Hornet is displayed in an Unterstand nearby. An Alouette putters up and down the line, with troops demonstrating hoists and rappelles. Now and then a flight of four Tigers blasts up the valley, returning half an hour later to make a low pass and land.
There are static displays of every known truck and fire engine and jeep, dioramas and videos. A trailer parked outside one hangar is labeled F/A-18 Shop, and offers Hornet posters, T-shirts, gimme caps, post cards, and other memorabilia. The event draws several thousand people, who arrive in cars and chartered buses from as far away as Geneva. Some are attended by young pilots in flightsuits showing mom and dad what the air force is like. The eagerness of the pilots reminds me of Major Beat Herger, the deputy commander of the Parachute Long-Range Reconnaissance School whom I met at Locarno. Herger, about 40, trains parascouts, a special infantry that can operate 100 miles behind enemy lines for up to 30 days without resupply. Since 1978 this single company of about 100 men--only about 400 Swiss have qualified thus far--has been part of the air force’s reconnaissance arm.
Parascouts apply early and stay late, mastering HALO (high altitude, low opening) jumps, static line leaps a hundred meters off the ground, and such other skills as are needed to survive for a month among an enemy. Most of the parascouts wind up as militia, led by a small cadre of professionals. Like pilots, Herger and his lads must go abroad to find some of the harder edges of reality.
“We can’t be part of NATO but we cooperate with other armed forces,” Herger says. In 1999, he was part of the air force Super Puma team sent to Albania. They flew humanitarian missions out of Tirana, the big helicopters daubed with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Herger didn’t take a silenced 9-mm machine gun with him, but he went. “We didn’t know what to expect.” His eyes shine with excitement. “It was just great.”
Among these skilled warriors, one senses a kind of longing, not for war, but to fight in a just cause—for a month of living dangerously behind enemy lines, a reason to let slip a Sidewinder, to engage. “We don’t wait behind the walls until we see it coming in,” Brigadier Kälin had explained. “Now we go out with our partners. It’s new thinking. A revolution.” And it is a revolution in plain view.