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.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 8 of 9)
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.