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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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.

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