Don’t Mess With Switzerland

To the world’s most formidable natural defenses, the Swiss have added F/A-18 Hornets and a new slant on neutrality.

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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.

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