Swiss army chief André Blattmann has warned that terror threats against the West have re-emerged, especially from the Sahel region, and Switzerland is not immune. But he believes an unstable Europe is the nation’s greatest security concern.
“Worrying signals are coming out of the African Sahel region,” the Lieutenant General told the Sonntag newspaper. “Terror groups from Pakistan and Afghanistan are allegedly moving towards North Africa.”
Terror groups could take advantage of waves of migrants coming to Europe, he added.
In the newspaper interview the Swiss army chief highlighted concerns over missing weapons in Libya, “which could be used against us” and the large chemical weapons arsenal in Syria.
But North Africa and the Middle East are not Switzerland’s main security concern, according to Blattmann.
In a speech to the Belgian-Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Brussels last week, Blattmann said that an unstable Europe, with its debt crisis, resulting high youth unemployment and increasingly popular ultranationalist political parties, represented Switzerland's biggest security threat.
Reacting to his remarks, European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen recalled that Europe was a “project for peace”, as highlighted at the recent Nobel Prize ceremony.
Blattmann told Sonntag newspaper that he regretted if his comments had caused friction in Brussels.
He said the army may be needed to protect critical Swiss infrastructure. The army is set to propose to utilize four battalions of military police, or 1,600 militia officers, to guard strategic points in the country including the airport, industrial plants, and the international organizations in Geneva.
He said it was necessary to consider such scenarios in order to be ready in the event of an emergency.
In September the army carried out a major military exercise, known as Stabilo Due, aimed at responding to possible instability in Europe caused by anti-austerity protests spiralling out of control, resulting civil unrest and large influxes of refugees from European countries.
The exercise, which was reported on by a number of international media, comprised 2,000 troops in eight different towns across Switzerland. Infantry soldiers took part as well as the air force and special forces.
Militia army under attack
Switzerland has a militia army. All able-bodied Swiss men have to perform military service and keep their guns at home after they have done their time so they can be called up in the event of an invasion.
The role of the army remains controversial, however. The conscript service of 200,000 recruits is regularly attacked and put under pressure to reduce numbers or be scrapped.
Critics of military service have gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to call a referendum to scrap military service. The government says the vote may happen in the second half of 2013 at the earliest, after parliament discusses the matter in the coming months.
Neutral Switzerland abstained from two world wars and has not fought a battle since 1515. Most European states have abandoned the draft after the end of the Cold War.
Opponents say keeping a force of 200,000 - the biggest army in Europe compared to population size - wastes resources that would be better spent on upgrading armaments.
Blattmann, however, wants to show the Swiss population the true value of the army and proposes to organise public army demonstrations.
“We could build a bridge over the Aare river, let tanks drive over, and organize an infantry defence system so the population can watch,” he said.
The Swiss army is based on a conscript system and the militia principle. Only a small core of army members are full-time professionals.
Military service lasts at least 262 days for a private individual aged between 20 and 34. Civilian service, which is 50% longer, was introduced in 1996.
Two initiatives – in 1989 and 2001 – to abolish the army were rejected by voters, winning 35.6% and 22% support.
Last year parliament voted down a proposal to suspend the conscript system.
A government advisory committee this year called for a free choice between service in the army and civilian service.
Most countries in Europe have abolished conscription for military duty, except for Norway, Greece and Moldova. Others maintain a compulsory service, but offer an alternative civilian service.
swissinfo.ch and agencies