At a time when the NATO nations are having serious trouble in pulling their forces together to meet the Soviet threat in Berlin, the possibility that three new, well-equipped, well-manned divisions might act in concert with them in case of an attack on Western Europe opens up an attractive prospect. Three such divisions are already in process of being formed; they are not being formed by one of the 15 nations in the NATO alliance, but by little, neutral Switzerland on its own initiative and at its own expense.

Switzerland is not a signatory to the NATO treaties, nor is it likely that it will become one, at any rate in the foreseeable future. Devotion to a long and fruitful policy of neutrality is too strong among the Swiss for such a drastic break in tradition. The Swiss authorities would certainly deprecate references to Switzerland even as a potential ally. That, nevertheless, is what recent developments imply. An awareness of the changes since World War II in the art of warfare and in the international political situation led the government of Switzerland in 1960 to a decision which will make its forces more of a factor in the general defenses of Western Europe than they ever have been in the past.

The virtues of neutrality were discovered by the Swiss almost 500 years ago when their previously invincible troops were seriously defeated by a French army equipped with what was then the newest military technique, accurate artillery. Realizing that more harm than good would come from further participation in the continuous wars of that epoch, the old Swiss Confederation renounced all political or military alliances and proclaimed that henceforth it would remain aloof from the power struggle.

The decision was a good one for Switzerland. She continued to supply mercenaries to any army that could afford them, but she was spared the wholesale destruction which marked most of the succeeding conflicts, including the bloody Thirty Years War. At one point she received subsidies for her neutral army from both Austria and France. The only major exception occurred when she was invaded by French revolutionary forces, and with Napoleon's rise was forced to become his ally in his attempt to conquer all of Europe. At the Congress of Vienna, where Napoleon's fate was sealed, all the major powers "recognized" Switzerland's neutrality as being in the best interests of Europe and pledged themselves to respect it.

Since 1815, Switzerland has remained outside all military conflicts, including both World War I and World War II. She had to shoulder the costs of mobilizing her troops, and at times she encountered great difficulties in finding raw materials for her factories and markets for the finished products, but the price she paid on this score was nothing compared to that paid by the participants. It is easy to understand, therefore, why the Swiss have been extremely reluctant to abandon such a fruitful foreign policy and why, in addition, her neighbors have not considered her an especially necessary ally.

A second reason for this attitude by Switzerland's neighbors has been the nature of her military policy, which has been one of static defense based on two key elements, geography and manpower. The mountainous character of most of the Swiss frontiers was considered a natural barrier to the movement of enemy troops, and this was reinforced where necessary by underground fortifications and gun emplacements. Areas where the topography did not provide protection were to be defended by artificial fortifications backed up by large numbers of infantry units with supporting artillery. The primary objective was to be strong enough on the frontiers to discourage any possible enemy; the secondary was, if an attack should nevertheless occur, to defend every foot of Swiss soil with such tenacity as to make the cost of pursuing the attack prohibitive.

To provide the large number of troops necessary for this defensive policy, universal military training has been the usual rule. Customarily all young men who attain the age of 20 are called to the colors and put through a basic training course, 118 days for the infantry and 132 days for the cavalry; and afterwards they are recalled at stated intervals for refresher courses. The number of refresher courses decreases with age. Officers and non-commissioned officers, as well as those in special services, receive additional training or attend special schools as necessary. The sight of Swiss units on their summer man?uvres is familiar to tourists.

For a long time it has been the law that every Swiss male retains his army affiliation until the age of 60, and in principle no one is exempt from military service. Exceptions are made for those mentally or physically unfit and for those with essential duties, e.g. members of the federal executive body, clergymen who are not military chaplains, and directors and wardens of prisons. Additional groups such as customs officials, police and indispensable transportation employees are exempt only after completing basic training. Other exemptions are rare, and, if obtained, subject the recipient to a special annual tax. Even Swiss citizens who reside abroad are liable.

Soldiers in the oldest age group, 49 to 60, make up the Landsturm; their primary responsibility is guard duty and similar tasks. The Landwehr, men from 37 to 48, is used principally in the frontier brigades and in manning forts and fortresses. The remainder, classed as the Elite, are the real fighting forces.

It should be noted that Switzerland has never had a professional army. The only full-time professionals are officers above a certain rank and some 800 instructors whose task it is to organize the various military courses and to teach the civilian soldier the use of modern equipment and tactics.

Nevertheless, the Swiss civilian army has impressed many observers in the past, including Adolph Hitler. Although the government is reluctant to disclose exact figures, the Swiss army at full strength is estimated to include at least one-tenth of the population of the country, that is, more than 500,000 men. Speed of mobilization is aided by strategically placed stockpiles of war materials and foodstuffs. A provision of the constitution, for instance, provides that the government shall maintain a minimum reserve of 80,000 tons of food grains at all times. The actual amount of materials kept in readiness in vast man-made Alpine caverns is without doubt very great.

The individual Swiss soldier is responsible for the custody of his own personal equipment, including rifle and uniform, and there are regular inspections and heavy penalties for improper care. Proficiency with small arms is tested by periodic rifle practice as a supplement to the regular military service.

Despite the size of the Swiss army, its state of readiness, and the fact that its equipment has been modernized at fairly frequent intervals, its value in the defenses of the West as a whole has been limited in the past by the restricted concept on which it has been based. In case of an invasion of Europe from the East in which the aggressor declared (no matter if insincerely) that it would respect Switzerland's integrity, the traditional concept would dictate that the Swiss forces be held on the sidelines, mobilized only to prevent the conflict from spilling over into Swiss territory. To have a strong neutral nation guarding the Alpine passes and one of NATO's flanks was, most certainly, something of merit. But if an aggressor attacked Switzerland the Swiss "static defense" would be of limited value in a general sense. The Swiss strategy would be to use the troops massed on the frontiers, backed by independent infantry battalions with supporting artillery, to exact a heavy toll for every foot of Swiss soil taken. Eventually the Swiss army might be forced to withdraw into its Alpine redoubt, and in the last extreme disperse in a continuing resistance movement. This eventually would leave not only all the major Swiss cities and productive areas in enemy hands, but would open a perfect avenue for an attack on NATO's flank.

About seven years ago a group of high-ranking Swiss officers became concerned over the changes taking place in the art of war and their significance for traditional Swiss military policy. They quickly came to the conclusion that a system of static defense was no longer feasible. Troop concentrations, fortifications and airfields had become inviting targets for the new nuclear weapons. Only a high degree of mobility would permit the necessary dispersion of troops in case of such attack and at the same time permit a rapid concentration of forces to cut off enemy salients and destroy air drops behind Swiss lines. Furthermore, Switzerland should be in a position to carry the battle directly to enemy bases, using its own tactical nuclear weapons if necessary.

It was also apparent that the nature of the potential enemy had changed drastically. In the past, Switzerland had to prepare its defenses against possible aggression by one of its close neighbors. Cultural ties and the traditional respect for Swiss neutrality, as well as the advantages of having a centrally located neutral country available for communication with the enemy or as a trading post, diminished the likelihood that a neighbor would undertake such aggression. In addition, since the possible aggressor could probably be identified in advance, defenses could be planned and constructed on a selective basis.

Following World War II, the real danger was that Switzerland might become implicated in the East-West world conflict. Given the immense armaments of both sides, Switzerland could not hope to defend itself with its own military forces; only as a coöperating ally on one side or the other might it influence the outcome or even make a significant contribution. Although no responsible Swiss official has said so in as many words, the nature and philosophy of the Eastern bloc, alien to all Switzerland stands for, evidently makes it the only real danger.

The reorganization plan drawn up by the group of officers and submitted to the federal authorities aimed essentially at creating a modern mobile army, equipped with nuclear weapons and able to coördinate its activities with an ally in case of attack. Specifically, they proposed the creation of six strong mobile divisions to be deployed in the vulnerable Plateau area to destroy enemy attackers and if necessary, either alone or in conjunction with allied forces, to carry a counterattack to enemy bases. They also called for more self-propelled artillery, armor and aircraft and for better general equipment. They were ruthless as to concepts, units or personnel that did not fit into their plan.

The Swiss Federal Council, the seven-man national executive body, received the plan in January 1956 and took it under careful study. In December 1959, it made known its own reorganization plan which, in effect, approved the principal findings of the army officers: the Swiss system of static defense was indeed outmoded; Switzerland must reject the defensive methods of World War I; it must make the sacrifices necessary to create a mobile defense system, eventually including tactical nuclear weapons.

However, the Federal Council's plan as presented to the legislature in June 1960 contained some modifications. They were based primarily on the need for economy, since the original plan would have required an estimated additional 5 percent of the national income. Three mobile divisions were provided for instead of six. Other important economies were to be found by lowering the age limit of military service. Military duty would end, in general, at 50 rather than 60. In future the Elite would include those from 20 to 32, the Landwehr those from 33 to 42, and the Landsturm those from 43 to 50. The reduction in age would also ensure that the new army would be made up of the men best able to stand the strenuous activity of modern military life, while releasing more men for use in the proposed new civil defense organization.

The heart of the plan, the creation of three mobile divisions, also necessitated a certain amount of reorganization of units and formations. One of the most important of these turned out to be the elimination of 13 so-called "independent infantry battalions" (25 in the original plans), the isolated élite units which serve as reserves to the Landwehr frontier brigades. It would have been too expensive to reequip them with modern weapons, and in any case most of their former tasks would now be taken over by the new mobile divisions. Finally, the general modernization of equipment and the emphasis on mobility suggested the elimination of all 24 squadrons of cavalry; reconnaissance and liaison could be better carried out by means of light aircraft, helicopters, small automobiles, or even motorcycles or bicycles.

Opposition to the Federal Council's plans was immediate.

On the ideological level, one of the heaviest attacks was made by the Swiss Socialist Party, which took issue with a statement by the Federal Council that Switzerland needed an army that could coöperate with allies in case of an attack on Swiss soil. To the Socialists this was "a serious deviation" from the traditional meaning of Swiss neutrality, which in their view meant that Switzerland must not enter into any military or political alliances in time of general peace. In time of war between third parties, Switzerland should remain aloof. At the beginning of World War II, it was pointed out, the high command of the Swiss army had made contacts with the French military to arrange for certain common measures in the eventuality that Hitler violated Swiss neutrality. In the case of attack on Swiss soil, however, the status of neutrality would automatically be cancelled; only then would Switzerland be free to ask for military assistance from other powers and to collaborate with them. Any other interpretation of neutrality was potentially disastrous, especially in light of the nature of the new potential enemy.

Although the Socialists continued to raise objections throughout the ensuing months of debate, they were unable to swing a substantial number of other legislators to their position. A similar fate befell the activities of the Swiss branch of the "anti-atomic-weapons movement." The majority of the legislators agreed with the Federal Council that since Switzerland could not afford tactical atomic weapons at the moment the question was academic; but when such weapons were available, and the Swiss budget would permit, they would be obtained.

The Swiss plans were the subject of a belligerent article in the Soviet military organ, the Red Star, in which frequent reference was made to Swiss "warmongering."

Of a more serious nature was the attack by the military conservatives, or "traditionalists," led by two colonels, men holding the highest rank permitted in the Swiss army in peacetime. These two, Max Wiebel, Chief of Infantry, and Alfred Ernst, Commander of the 8th Infantry Division, struck at the very heart of the Council's plan. The creation of mobile divisions, it was argued, was neither feasible nor practical. Only an infantry- oriented army clinging to each foot of Swiss soil could guarantee a successful resistance to enemy forces in either a traditional or nuclear war. Specifically, this group was in favor of retaining the existing organization of the army, including all independent infantry battalions. Rather than new mechanized divisions, small armored brigades should be created out of existing light brigades to be attached to the independent infantry battalions for support. Cantonal rights over certain elements of the independent units also was an important factor in their arguments. A general increase in firepower, which this group accepted, could be financed by a substantial reduction in the air force. About the only point where the traditionalists were willing to give way was in lowering age limits for military service from 60 to 50.

The attack became so vociferous that, in December 1960, the President of the Confederation, Max Petitpierre, was forced to denounce the activities of the "rebel colonels" as incompatible with discipline and their obligations under the law. The debate as to the proper attitude of officers toward executive plans for national defense still continues in Switzerland (as it does in the United States).

Allied to this group were the members of Switzerland's horse cavalry-the "dragoons," as they are usually referred to. They had always been a large and proud element in the old Swiss army, and as they came primarily from rural areas with heavy voting power, they were influential in the legislature. They naturally opposed the plan to eliminate horse transport, arguing that the Swiss terrain made many types of mechanized equipment completely useless. Further, they argued, mechanized transport would be a prey to an enemy blockade of petroleum supplies.

It was also pointed out that the proposed abolition of the horse cavalry would have a profound effect on Swiss agriculture. To a large extent the Swiss farmer still relies on horses for power, and this is encouraged by the government's practice of paying one-half of the purchase price of the cavalryman's horse. In the long intervals between training periods, most of these horses are used on Swiss farms. Indeed, the training periods for the cavalry are arranged so as not to interfere with the harvest.

The legislative battle ended in approval of the bulk of the innovations proposed by the Federal Council. Most important, it was agreed that the Council should proceed with the plan to create three mobile divisions for the defense of the Plateau area. Even before the approval of the new plans, the Council had authorized the use of unexpended funds to purchase 50 Centurion tanks from the Union of South Africa for the equipment of these divisions; and this armor is to be supplemented soon with new all-Swiss tanks of the medium variety (around 35 tons).

On two points, however, the "colonels' revolt" paid off. First, it was decided to maintain all of the independent infantry battalions. Secondly, 18 of the 24 cavalry squadrons were to be retained instead of being all eliminated. As to the Swiss air force, it was decided to maintain it at a strength of 400 aircraft until 1964, at which time its status would be reviewed. Consequently, the new army will be made up of the three new mobile divisions, alongside a traditional army of three infantry divisions, three mountain divisions and three frontier divisions.

Although many difficulties remain to be ironed out, such as how to find the élite troops to fill out the new mobile divisions in view of the retention of the infantry battalions and the cavalry, Switzerland seems to have definitely turned its back on the outmoded concept of static defense. And when the new reorganization plans come into effect fully in 1964, Switzerland will be in a better position to meet the demands of modern warfare and will be a stronger factor in West European defense.

Nor will the reorganization of the Swiss army stop at this point. The federal authorities will almost surely make a new plea for three more mobile divisions and will renew their demand to reduce the independent infantry battalions and eliminate the horse cavalry. It is also certain that the new Swiss army will be equipped with tactical nuclear weapons. Only about six months after the big debate, the Federal Council told the legislature that the army must have the most effective arms available, that is, nuclear arms; and it proposes to obtain them if and when it can do so without endangering Swiss neutrality. If the United States decides to make tactical nuclear arms available to its allies, the possibility of including neutral Switzerland should not be overlooked. There are neutrals and neutrals. From the point of view of the NATO nations, the Swiss type neutral is a good neutral.

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  • GEORGE A. CODDING, JR., Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Colorado; author of "The Federal Government of Switzerland," "Broadcasting Without Barriers" and other books
  • More By George A. Codding Jr.