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Army plans to close one in three sites

The Swedish Gripen fighter jet, which flew over Sion’s castle at the Swiss airshow in 2011, will never touch down at the airbase in canton Valais

The Swiss armed forces have announced they want to shut down around a third of their infrastructure, including military training areas, airports and secret facilities to cut rental charges, operational costs and maintenance.

The airbase in Sion, canton Valais, and the mothballed airfield in Buochs, canton Nidwalden, will be shuttered, while the military airport in Dübendorf near Zurich will only be used as a helicopter base in the future, according to the concept presented on Tuesday by Defence Minister Ueli Maurer and the chief of the armed forces, André Blattmann.

The army also plans to close down “a range of” classified underground facilities all over the country, while five training areas in the southwest and three firing ranges will also be affected by the cuts.

“We are cutting back in those areas where there is less demand – primarily in the deployment and the logistics infrastructure,” Maurer said at a press conference. He cited underground facilities as an example because they are no longer necessary.

Parliament decided in September 2011 to reduce the number of the army’s staff to 100,000 and cap annual spending at CHF5 billion ($5.5 billion) by 2016.

Cost cut

It has been known for some time that as a result of that decision, the army would have to do without a considerable number of its sites.

The cost cuts particularly affect properties because of their high upkeep and the investments needed to keep them functional. The ministry also said that the cuts would affect training programmes to a lesser extent.

The proposed closures would lead to about 300 job cuts spread over several years and the army would have to move some staff to other sites.

The restructuring plans, which had been discussed with the cantons intensively for one and a half years, has struck a chord with the cantons, Maurer said on Tuesday. The ministry said that in its proposed concept it had tried to find a balance with the cantons and to make sure that the army would remain present in all parts of Switzerland.

Cantonal reactions

One of the main points of discussion will be the closure of the military airport in Sion, which would eliminate 50 jobs. Maurer said it would be a “killer” for the canton of Valais, as civilian use of the airbase would hardly be profitable.

Oskar Freysinger, head of the Valais security department, said he had “mixed feelings” about the concept. While disappointed about the closure of the airbase, he also sees positive elements. For example, the training and the commando of the military police – as well as the ski mountaineering race Patrouille des Glaciers – would remain in the canton.

The future use of the infrastructure was not a subject discussed in the plans, Maurer said. That is why the defence ministry has not given any indication whether the army facilities may in the future be used to house asylum seekers.

For Gilbert Gubler, president of the town of Moudon, future usage is one of the main concerns. Gubler said that it was “scandalous” that he had to learn about the closure of the training area from the media; he also said that the local authorities would do their best to prevent the use of the barracks as a centre for refugees.

The cantons will now have until the end of January 2014 to comment on the proposed closures.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR