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Defence

The Swiss army defends the country's neutrality Keystone

Tradition

This content was published on September 11, 2009 - 13:01

Safeguarding the independence of the country and assuring security within Switzerland have always been the classical roles of the Swiss army.

To these have now been added the promotion of peace in an international context plus humanitarian aid after natural disasters.

Military service is compulsory for all able-bodied Swiss men. Women can volunteer for most units, while conscientious objectors can do an alternative community service,which is 1.5 times longer than military service. Until 2009 conscientious objectors were subject to a vetting procedure by a specialist panel.

The Swiss armed forces have a purely defensive role. In recent years the rules have been changed so that lightly armed Swiss troops can serve in United Nations peace support operations, which do not foresee combat.

During the Cold War, the Swiss Army numbered 600,000 men who could be called up at short notice. In 1995 the army was reduced to 400,000, and today it is 220,000, with further reductions envisioned.

In 1989, a popular initiative calling for the dissolution of the army received 35.6 per cent support. The initiative was rejected, but the result stunned everyone.

There is a long tradition of keeping weapons at home, which has come under pressure in recent years.

More professional

Increasing professionalisation of units means new and longer forms of service are needed.

The standing wing of the air force has been full-time for decades, and the increasingly technical nature of armies now requires that two-thirds of recruits undergo basic training of 21 instead of 15 weeks. The remaining third have a 18-week training period.

The recruitment and selection process now lasts three days, ensuring a smaller dropout rate. Annual refresher courses of two or three weeks are back on the agenda and, as a novelty for Switzerland, recruits can opt to do their lifetime service of 300 days in a continuous single term. Those deemed unfit are exempted from service but obliged to pay a tax as compensation.

A nucleus of 2,000-3,000 one-year recruits in addition to around 3,000 professional instructors does not imply a standing army, but permits more proficient handling of tasks such as guarding embassies or protecting international conferences in Switzerland.

Reform

The Army XXI programme, adopted in 2003, is the most sweeping defence change since the Second World War, and has ushered in an era of drastic downsizing.

This means that Switzerland is sitting on a gigantic arsenal in terms of material and munitions, much of which it is trying to sell.

Switzerland is also unique in having enough nuclear fallout shelters to accomodate its entire population. However, most army bunkers have been vacated and their secrecy has been lifted.

Switzerland now spends less than one per cent of gross national product (GNP) on national defence annually.

The SND, the Directorate for Strategic Intelligence, is Switzerland's permanent foreign intelligence service. It conducts continuous analysis of threats, dangers and risks, partly through satellite intercept stations.

Satellite-borne international civil and military communications, including internet traffic, are monitored by "Onyx", a smaller version of the US "Echelon" system.

Onyx, based at three sites in cantons Bern and Valais, uses software filtering, which searches for specific keywords, to intercept satellite communications.

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