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Parliament paves the way for army reforms

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The Swiss militia army is to be slimmed down and made more professional, despite opposition by conservative politicians.

Parliament decided in principle to reduce the number of soldiers by two thirds to 120,000 and to make the armed forces more professional without giving up the traditional system of a conscript army.

The House of Representatives on Tuesday followed the Senate in agreeing the main outlines of the reforms, including a drastic cut in troop numbers.

It decided to extend initial training for young soldiers from 15 to 21 weeks to be followed by regular refresher courses, in most cases ten courses at two-year intervals.

The House also came out in favour of allowing a limited number of soldiers per year to do their military service in one stretch.

Under the reform plans army training would become more professional.

A vote on the entire package is expected next week. Later in the year the reform plans will again have to be discussed in the Senate to iron out a series of differences with the House of Representatives.

Conservative opposition

However, conservative politicians have threatened to challenge the reform in a nationwide vote.

They argue the proposals are a first step towards fully professional armed forces. Sceptical of increased military cooperation with other countries, the opponents also say the role of the army should be limited to prevention and protection in Switzerland.

According to Ulrich Schlüer, a member of parliament for the right wing Swiss People’s Party, the reforms would jeopardise the Swiss militia army system.

“This new system is no longer a Swiss system, but a Nato system. But we want to have an independent army for our own purposes,” Schlüer told swissinfo.

Enshrined in constitution

The Swiss defence minister, Samuel Schmid, has dismissed suggestions that the reforms are paving the way for the abolition of the militia system. He said the principle of a conscript army was enshrined in the Swiss constitution and could not be done away with in the foreseeable future.

Schmid said the proposed changes would boost the credibility of the militia system and give the army more flexibility and know-how to fulfil its tasks.

Neutral Switzerland joined Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme in 1996, but it has no plans to become a member of Nato. It can take part in international peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

A Swiss contingent, consisting of some 160 military volunteers, is currently stationed in Kosovo to provide logistical support to the international peacekeeping forces. But they are not allowed to take part in combat missions.

Public support

The Swiss armed forces continue to enjoy widespread support among the population. According to new survey nearly 80 per cent of people questioned said they considered the army necessary.

In a nationwide vote last year the Swiss electorate rejected a proposal to abolish the armed forces. A similar proposal was also turned down in 1989, but a surprising number of voters – about a third -came out in favour of doing away with the armed forces.

Smallest budget

The government last month put forward the smallest budget for military procurement in recent history.

The proposals, which have still to be debated in parliament, foresee a budget of SFr674 million ($433 million) for this year. The funds would go towards the purchase of computers and a communications system for the armed forces as well as radar-based alarm and defence installations for the air force.

by Urs Geiser and Jonathan Summerton

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR