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Parliament sharpens knife for army spending cuts

The Senate approved the purchase of two military transport aircraft Keystone

The Swiss army could see its procurement programme for next year severely curtailed if parliament heeds calls for cutbacks.

This content was published on October 4, 2004 - 11:40

On Tuesday the Senate voted to cut the proposed SFr647 million ($511 million) budget by SFr129 million.

Major sticking points had been the planned purchase of two transport aircraft, a dozen armoured vehicles, new helmets, software and simulators.

Prior to the debate, the Senate’s security commission expressed serious doubts about the value of buying a dozen armoured engineering and demining tanks.

Parliamentarians followed the commission's lead in rejecting the purchase, but accepted a proposal to buy two transport aircraft at a cost of SFr109 million.

The House of Representatives, Switzerland's other parliamentary chamber, has yet to discuss the procurement programme.

Lack of vision

The armed forces have been under considerable financial pressure in recent times as the government continues to search for ways to trim the federal budget.

The defence ministry has already seen its anticipated budget of SFr4.3 billion for next year reduced to less than SFr4 billion.

The cuts to Switzerland's regular armed forces follow plans for a major overhaul of the country’s militia army approved in a nationwide vote in May last year.

The ministry will have 1,000 fewer employees on its books by the end of next year, and 2,500 fewer by 2010.

Under the Army XXI reforms, the militia army will be reduced by a third, from 350,000 to 220,000 soldiers (including 80,000 reservists).

This has not prevented the military from considering a successor to the F-5 Tiger fighter jet, at a cost of around SFr4.5 billion. The government is expected to announce whether to go ahead by the end of the year.

Real mandate

These spending requests have come at a time when the future role of Switzerland’s armed forces is being questioned as never before.

At stake is whether the current militia model should make way for a purely professional army.

Defence Minister Samuel Schmid broke a long-standing taboo in August when he hinted that compulsory military service could soon be a thing of the past.

The army’s defensive duties are also under scrutiny, with some observers demanding a bigger role in international peacekeeping or humanitarian aid missions.

But the military is not shouldering arms without a fight. Its mouthpiece, the Swiss Military Review magazine, has called on parliament to accept its share of responsibility for the absence of a clear vision.

In an editorial, the Review said any army failings were down to decisions, or lack of them, at a policymaking level. It added that politicians had to do more than simply set budgets or run the rule over procurement programmes.

The magazine demanded that politicians clearly define the military’s role, be it defence duties, peacekeeping, safeguarding neutrality or underpinning the work of civilian security forces.

Without a mandate, it claimed, the army could not plan for its future.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub

In brief

The Senate has rejected plans to purchase 12 armoured vehicles (SFr129 million), but accepted a proposal to buy two transport aircraft (SFr109 million).

Tuesday's vote reduced the proposed procurement budget from SFr647 million to SFr518 million.

The House of Representatives has yet to discuss the budget.

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