ZURICH Despite Swiss voters refusing to back the purchase of 22 Gripen fighter planes from Sweden in a national referendum on 18 May, a new study finds that the army has more support than it has had in 20 years. The concept of neutrality was also favoured by a record 96% of respondents, rising to 99% among the 18-29 age group.
The study, released last month by the Centre for Security Studies at Zurich’s Institute of Technology (ETH), revealed that 80% of respondents in all linguistic regions of the country think the army is necessary. Some 70% also believe that it should be well equipped. However, they do not consider the army as necessary to guard against threats of terrorism or violent conflict, but rather as a means of preserving neutrality.
A government press release noted that most Swiss do not support joining NATO or the EU, although 81% favour close economic and political cooperation. “The Swiss people are betting on autonomy and neutrality,” the document noted. A majority also maintained that, while neutrality forbids Switzerland from taking part in conflicts, this should not preempt taking foreign policy positions. An overwhelming 90% said they feel safe.The only threats they perceive to their security are cyber attacks, data protection and environmental upheavals.
The Swiss are very proud of their army, which requires part-time service from each male citizen between the ages of 18 to 34 [women may serve voluntarily]. In a nation of eight million, about 20,000 recruits a year attend basic training for 18 to 21 weeks and keep their uniforms and weapons at home in case of rapid mobilization. Changes in the military have reduced the army’s troop reserve from 625,000 some fifty years ago to around 155,000 today.
Last September, the Swiss voted by a large majority to keep their conscript army despite calls from pacifists and others who said the end of the Cold War has eliminated the need for fighter planes and large armies. The Swiss government had urged voters to retain the conscription service. Many Swiss agreed, voting to keep the army they believe has helped to safeguard their country’s neutrality. A further positive factor, Swiss often point out, is that conscription helps bring citizens from different regions, linguistic groups and social backgrounds together, a vital component of Switzerland’s diverse national fabric.
Switzerland’s history of neutrality means that today’s army uses its forces for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions rather than armed conflict. Earlier this month, for example, Swiss armed forces provided helicopter assistance to flood victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, transporting 270 people to safer ground and delivering over 100 tons of relief goods.