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Four out of ten conscripts unfit for duty

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The number of recruits dropping out of military service looks set to top 40 per cent for the second year in succession, according to the Swiss defence ministry.

Officials say the drop-out rate has more than doubled over the past decade owing to a tougher selection process, growing anti-army sentiment and declining physical fitness among young people.

According to the defence ministry, more than 40 per cent of the 33,000 conscripts called up for military service – mandatory for all 20-year-old Swiss men – failed to make the grade in 2005.

Close to 13,000 were deemed unfit for duty after two days of physical, medical and psychological tests, while a further 1,500 were weeded out after making it through to recruits school.

Complete figures for 2006 are not yet available but the defence ministry has confirmed that a third of last year’s 36,000-strong contingent fell at the first hurdle, with up to seven per cent not expected to finish recruits school.

Far from being despondent, the army says the statistics show that reforms introduced three years ago – which include tougher entry examinations – are working “very well”.

Spokesman Felix Endrich told swissinfo that the recruits school drop-out rate was now less than half the figure in 2002 (18 per cent), meaning big savings for the taxpayer and a better standard of soldier.

“The examinations are much more detailed and it is easier to find out if a young person is both mentally and physically able to make it through recruits school,” he said.

“That’s why our drop-out rate after the recruiting process went up but the drop-out rate during recruits school has been reduced. We save around SFr15 million [$12 million] a year by not training people who later drop out.”

Conscientious objectors

Under the Swiss constitution, all 20-year-old men are called up for military service. Those who fail to pass muster for the army join the civil protection service, whereas conscientious objectors are forced to do civilian service, such as social work in old people’s homes, hospitals or other institutions.

After completing basic army training, which lasts for either 18 or 21 weeks, soldiers have to do up to seven repetition courses lasting a total of 260 days. Once these have been completed, they remain in the reserve until the age of 30.

But the fall in the number of those doing military service is not simply down to tougher entry criteria. Endrich admits that social and geopolitical developments, notably the collapse of communism, have also played a part.

“The attitude of young people towards defence topics and towards the army itself has changed. We have seen a complete change in our security policy surroundings: we don’t have the Soviet Union anymore, there’s no Berlin Wall, the whole Eastern bloc has fallen apart,” he said.

“Also the social environment for young people has completely changed, they’re not so used to living in large groups or discipline. Then there’s the physical health of young people: in the Seventies and Eighties young people were in better shape than now. These are all factors that influence these results.”

Another factor is the declining status of military service in the eyes of the population. In the past, being an officer in the Swiss army was viewed as a real asset for one’s career prospects. Nowadays this is no longer the case – the benefits of doing military training has been replaced by MBAs and other networking opportunities.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

There are three “recruits schools” each year lasting either 18 or 21 weeks, which start in March, July and October.

Conscripts also have the option of doing their entire military service in one go – 300 days. This is limited to 15 per cent each year, up to a maximum of 3,000 recruits.

Conscientious objectors have to sit a test to prove their pacifist credentials – something that some parliamentarians would like to scrap.

The defence ministry says one of the benefits of the tighter recruitment process is that military service is now better tailored to the skills of recruits.

Drop-out rates:

1994 – 14.3% during the recruiting process; 7% at recruits school.
1999 – 14.3% and 9%.
2002 – 22% and 18%.
2005 – 39% and 4.5%

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR