Switzerland’s defence minister, Samuel Schmid, has hinted that the country’s militia army could soon be a thing of the past.
The cabinet is expected to address the issue next month as part of discussions about further reform of the armed services.
Schmid told Swiss radio on Tuesday that changes in the army’s structure could not be ruled out because of budget cuts. “We have to be prepared to think the unthinkable,” he warned.
The defence minister said that he was personally opposed to the end of conscription - the backbone of the modern Swiss armed forces.
But he admitted that if Swiss males were no longer automatically drafted into the army, it would probably spell the end for the militia system.
Any decision to do away with conscription would require amendments to the constitution and a nationwide vote.
Switzerland could decide to create a professional army in place of the militia system. But in the past the armed forces have had trouble recruiting career soldiers.
Conscription has been frequently debated in Switzerland. However, this is the first time a defence minister has dared break what is considered by many to be a taboo.
Ulrich Schlüer, a parliamentarian from Schmid’s own rightwing People’s Party, said Schmid had broken an earlier promise not to touch the militia system.
“When the Swiss were asked to vote on the latest army reforms in 2003, we were told our militia-based system would remain intact,” said Schlüer, whose party has always insisted that the militia army remain untouched.
But Bruno Frick, a Christian Democrat member of parliament, said a debate was necessary.
“Only honest young men fulfil their military obligations nowadays,” he added. “Others do civilian service and the clever ones get let off for medical reasons.”
Army reform has been regularly on parliament’s agenda. Two reform programmes have been implemented in the past decade, the first one in 1995 and the second one this year.
Both times, the aim was to create a slimmer army. Last year, voters approved plans to cut the armed forces by a third, reducing their size from 350,000 to 220,000 soldiers and ending compulsory military service by age 36 instead of 42.
But while personnel numbers have been cut, costs have not been reined in as much as the government or parliament would have liked.
As a result, the armed forces have been forced to scale back their weapons procurement programme for this year.
Schmid’s bombshell came just a day after he rejected criticism that his ministry was run inefficiently.
On Monday the defence minister denied allegations that he had suppressed an internal review highlighting shortcomings within the ministry.
Political groups have suggested Schmid is now trying to divert attention away from his leadership.
The defence ministry has been in turmoil since it was announced that 2,500 jobs were to be slashed by 2010 as part of the government’s cost-cutting drive.
On Thursday Schmid sacked his general secretary, 56-year-old Juan Felix Gut, following differences of opinion about how the ministry should be led.
Switzerland has maintained a reserve-based army since 1875. During the Cold War, its forces numbered 600,000 men who could be called up at short notice.
But successive cutbacks have seen that number shrink to 220,000. Today, able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 36 must serve 260 days of military service.
Opponents of reforms have argued that the changes are damaging to the militia system, and that international cooperation has eroded the army’s independence.
The government, while voicing its attachment to the militia-based army, has said that a smaller army would be more flexible and better able to respond to a changing world.
It maintains that the army can still defend Switzerland’s neutrality while taking part in peacekeeping or internal security operations.
swissinfo, Scott Capper
Defence budget 2004: SFr4.8 billion ($3.75 billion).
Soldiers: 220,000, including 20,000 recruits and 80,000 reservists.
The Swiss voted twice on abolishing the army: in 1985, nearly 36% approved the idea, but in 1995, it was less than 24%.
In 1992, four out of ten Swiss rejected the purchase of new fighter jets.
Across Europe, compulsory military service is being dropped in favour of professional armies.
Britain abolished conscription in 1960, France and Spain did so more recently.
Germany offers recruits a choice of army or civilian service, while Denmark and Portugal hold a lottery draft.
Sweden, Finland and Austria still hold a draft.