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Policing the skies over Davos

Where are you going? An FA/18 Hornet intercepts a Swiss private jet over Davos. Keystone

Our pilot is edgy. An F/18 fighter plane has just fired warning shots as we circle over Davos. “If we don’t follow them, they say they’ll shoot us down,” he yells. took a ride in a “hostile” Cessna private jet into the protected airspace over the alpine resort as part of a Swiss air force training exercise ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting.

This year Switzerland is deploying 4,000 soldiers, including 2,500 from the Swiss air force, as well as fighter jets and helicopters to secure the town of Davos, where world political and economic leaders including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and British Prime Minister David Cameron are gathering this week.

Until January 31 the air force is enforcing a 46-km-wide airspace ban over Davos, carrying out surveillance flights using 11 FA/18 fighter jets and smaller PC-7 planes based at Payerne airfield, 320km west of Davos, or just a 12-minute flight away.

“During the day we have two FA/18s and two PC-7s in the air… in the middle of the night our teams are stationed on the ground ready to take off in three minutes,” Peter Bruns, chief of the Swiss air operations centre, told

As the silver FA/18 peels off to our left, inside the Cessna there is a ripple of laughter at the staged air incident.

Yet the exercise was a very serious one. In theory Swiss Defence Minister Ueli Maurer could have given the order to shoot us down after we ignored the FA/18’s repeated calls for identification, the warning flares and after refusing to leave the zone or change course. Fortunately no such events have ever occurred.

Air security incidents during the annual WEF meeting usually involve unprepared or stubborn pilots who ignore the ban entering the closed airspace without permission and are then escorted out, say officials. Last year there were two cases and three in 2009; pilots often end up being fined.

“It’s not really a dangerous mission,” explained Julien Meister, a Swiss fighter pilot with ten years’ experience who covered the WEF last year. “It’s the kind of thing we train for on a daily basis so we are used to it.”

But he admitted that there is a certain pressure as “no errors” were possible.

“Relatively low” risk

The threat of terrorist or targeted attacks against WEF participants remains a “relatively low” risk, the government said in an official statement in March 2009.

“Anti-WEF protests have changed form over recent years,” it declared.

The number of demonstrators at protests has dropped from around 2,000 between 2001-2004 to around 200, as witnessed at a march in St Gallen last Saturday.

“This change is due to the heterogeneous nature of anti-WEF groups. But the mobilisation capacity of left-wing protestors ready to use violence, who are among the demonstrators, remains high,” it said. “The experience from previous years shows that the risk of acts of sabotage during the meeting or just before cannot be excluded.”

Even though the Davos meeting is a private event organised by the WEF, the Swiss government and parliament agreed in 2009 to maintain its funding and human resources support for the 2010-2012 period because of the event’s significance for “the international interests of Switzerland”.

Army refresher courses

Apart from the air force, the militia army – 90 per cent of the army resources for this operation – have been called up this year to provide security as part of their mandatory refresher courses.

The Swiss army have provided support at the WEF since 2000, when 70 special forces soldiers were deployed.

The army are subordinate to the cantonal police force of Graubünden, which is ultimately in charge of WEF security, and are responsible for helping local police forces secure the roads in and out of the mountain resort, and protect Davos’ power and water supplies, train lines and helicopter landing pads. Professional troops will ensure the safety of the high-level participants and man vital checkpoints.

Over recent weeks young soldiers have been building an 18km-long fence to create a “bell-shaped” protection zone around the alpine resort.


The defence ministry says the deployment of the army and air force costs an extra SFr1.5 million ($1.6 million). But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Annual WEF security costs in Davos are estimated to hit SFr8 million, of which SFr2 million is met by the WEF organisation, SFr2 million by canton Graubünden, SFr1 million by the Davos local authority and SFr3 million by the Swiss federal authorities.

Criticised in the past, the military deployment in Davos has become less controversial. The Swiss have seen their army increasingly involved in providing security and logistical support at events other than the WEF, such as the 2008 European football championship, co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria, and the Francophonie Summit held in Montreux last year.

Jean-Marc Halter, chief of staff for army operations, rejects the idea that the current deployment was excessive.

“It depends on the ongoing risks and threats and it’s the defence ministry’s intelligence service which decides those,” he said.

“The WEF is a chance for Switzerland to show that it is a safe country and capable of hosting big events.”

At a time when all eyes are on the army budget, military officials are quick to stress that the deployment has been trimmed down from 6,500, and that the total amount of work days fell from 70,000 in 2009 to 60,000 in 2010 and is likely to decrease further this year.

But further savings will be difficult, says Halter.

“We can optimise to a certain point with the infrastructure, but if we want to protect buildings and people and if the WEF stays this size I don’t think we can really reduce the number of people deployed,” he noted.

The World Economic Forum started life as the European Management Forum in 1971.
Formed by German-born businessman Klaus Schwab, it was designed to connect European business leaders to their counterparts in the United States to find ways of boosting connections and solving problems.
It is a non-profit organisation with headquarters in Geneva and is funded by the varying subscription fees of its members.
The forum took its current name in 1987 as it broadened its horizons to provide a platform for finding solutions to international disputes. WEF claims to have helped calm disputes between Turkey and Greece, North and South Korea, East and West Germany and in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
WEF conducts detailed global and country specific reports and conducts other research for its members. It also hosts a number of annual meetings – the flagship being Davos at the beginning of each year.
In 2002, this meeting was moved to New York for a one-off change of venue to support the city following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of the previous year.
Davos has attracted a number of big names in the world of business, academia, politics and show business. These include: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bono, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and Sharon Stone.
As the forum grew in size and status in the 1990s, it attracted rising criticism from anti-globalisation groups, complaining of elitism and self-interest among participants.
The 2011 Davos meeting takes place from January 26 to 30 and will attract 2,500 delegates from 90 countries.

In 2000 the Swiss government qualified the WEF as an “exceptional event” due its significance for “the international interests of Switzerland.” It started providing military support that year with the deployment of 70 special forces personnel.

In 2009 the government and parliament approved security support measures for the 2010-2012 period, authorising a maximum deployment of 5,000 troops annually for the civil authorities in canton Graubünden to help organise the WEF.  

For 2011 4,000 soldiers and air force personnel have been mobilised alongside cantonal police forces. The security operation is being carried out in cooperation with the Austrian air force, and German, Italian and Austrian air authorities.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR