A group of young arabs smoke marijuana on the steps while a gaggle of hippies has their confab in a sharing circle on the other side of the station. Neon blue lights streak across the concrete slabs in front of the Lausanne-Flor metro station where a family pushes a stroller between the two groups. It appears to be a local man with his parents and Asian wife.
Lausanne is primarily a college town located about an hour by train from Geneva, Switzerland. The city mixes the traditional architecture of the old city almost seamlessly with the modern glass and metal of bridges and elevators. With the highest density of trains to people anywhere in the world, public transportation is always on time—putting the subways of New York City to shame.
Interrupting the pedestrians at Lausanne-Flor is a group of Swiss soldiers. Wearing their woodland camouflage uniforms and berets, they shout at each other in French, hurrying to buy a few beers in plastic cups for the trip to their next destination before the metro arrives. Nobody pays them much mind, though. They are not rude or rowdy, just doing the things that soldiers do the world over. Besides, they are a part of a military tradition stretching back hundreds of years.
Unlike America, it is not uncommon to see Switzerland’s citizen-soldiers walking the streets in uniform. They keep their Army-issued SIG 550 rifle in their bedrooms at home, in the trunks of their cars, and carry them on the metro on the way to complete their required military service. None of this is astounding or even interesting to the Swiss people.
The soldiers carefully balance their cups of beer so as to not spill any as they rush towards the metro station and dash down the stairs.
* * *
After enjoying a few beers myself, I head back to the apartment of a Swiss militia member who is putting me up for a few days. He isn’t home, as he is bouncing between his two jobs: project manager for Switzerland’s largest newspaper and magazine company, and infantry officer. Diallo has to complete his mandatory service in addition to working his regular job in order to make ends meet.
Waking up early the next morning, I jump on the train to the Swiss capital of Bern to explore some museums, then head back to Lausanne to meet another Swiss officer. Louis has worked as a recon officer for an infantry unit and has been overseas a few times on the only deployment option anywhere for Swiss soldiers: the Partnership for Peace (PFP) in Kosovo, which exists under the auspices of NATO. Louis hooks me up with some range time with the SIG firearms that the Swiss military uses.
The SIG 550 is the primary rifle used in the Swiss military. As we field-stripped the gun, I remarked to Louis that, internally, it has a lot in common with the AK-47. He nods his head, “Yes, it is like an AK, but made by Rolex!” He isn’t kidding, either. Although it came into service in the Swiss military over 25 years ago, the rifle more than serves its purpose. Utilizing a gas tappet system, the SIG 550 delivers better accuracy than the M16 variants in service with the U.S. military, while experiencing fewer malfunctions. The only drawback is the rifle’s weight. At nine pounds, it is several pounds heavier than the M4, despite firing the same NATO standard 5.56mm round.
Most of the Swiss soldiers I met would prefer to carry the short-barrel SIG 553—currently used by Swiss Special Operations units such as DRA-10—instead of the 550, due to both the length and weight of their issued weapon.
“How do you like it?” Louis asks after I blast through several magazines on the flat range.
“I love it,” I replied.
Whatever its flaws, after 25 years, the SIG 550 still gets the job done.
Like Diallo, Louis is a citizen-soldier in the militia. Normally, he can be found working on high-tension lines around Switzerland. Like many Swiss soldiers I met, he wishes that he could devote more time to his military service, but in a country where everyone is essentially a reservist, this isn’t easy. One of the few options to people like Louis is to apply for DRA-10, but even then, deployment options are extremely few and far between.
* * *
The fun and games come to an end the next day as I come back from lunch and link up with Diallo and my friend Quentin—the one who invited me out to Switzerland in the first place. Quentin is a medic in the military, and recently graduated from college with an IT degree. He’s already secured a job working for a Swiss bank.
The reason for my visit is to participate in a Swiss militia exercise hosted by Asso Sion, the Association of Sion. First, to be clear, the militia in Switzerland is sort of like the Army Reserves in the United States. These are the citizen-soldiers who make up the bulk of the Swiss military. The only full-time professional soldiers who are charged with actual combat operations are fighter pilots, members of compagnie d’éclaireurs parachutistes (a freefall-qualified, long-range recon unit), and Switzerland’s military counter-terrorist unit, DRA-10. Artillery, tanks, logistics, intelligence, infantry, and virtually every other military function falls under the purview of the militia.
Asso Sion is one of many militia associations. Each focuses on a different aspect of military training. One association is exclusively for training on marksmanship, another is for truck drivers to cruise around in military vehicles. Asso Sion focuses on infantry and unconventional warfare tasks such as defending in place, direct action, and sabotage operations. According to the NCOs, because the militia is part time, many Swiss troops don’t get enough training on actual combat tasks. So they created these private associations.
Like many other things about the Swiss military, the Asso is very unique, with no equivalent in the United States. Technically, it is not a part of the military at all, but rather it is privately run. Soldiers pay about 50 dollars a year to be a part of the Asso and take part in the voluntary training independent of their required military service. The Asso is also given access to military hardware and logistics. If requested, the Asso can draw out troop transport trucks, weapons, ammunition, and even tanks.
Kitted up, Diallo, Quentin, and I walk through the streets of Lausanne to the train station and hop a ride out to the shooting range where Asso Sion will meet at five in the morning. Seeing troops kitted out like they are actually going to war draws a bit of attention from the locals, but no one really raises an eyebrow at us. When not training, Swiss soldiers are required to remove the bolt from their rifles, but other than that, they travel on public transportation to and from training with all their weapons and kit.
We slept out at the range that night for our early wake-up call as other members of Asso Sion began to arrive. The NCO in charge introduced himself to me in between inspecting equipment layouts and getting everyone organized. Francois is a 45-year-old sergeant major in the Military Police who has previously been deployed to Kosovo with the PFP. He gave me a quick in-brief to the exercise and welcomed me to the team. I found Francois to be professional and competent, quickly running through the numbers required to have men, weapons, and equipment ready for training.
We were soon issued additional kit to take with us, including blank ammunition, training grenades, PVS-7 night-vision goggles, and binoculars. Normally, the Swiss draw out encrypted radio systems for these training missions, but in this case we simply used cell phones to communicate. With our newly issued items, we re-packed our rucks and were then issued a laser training system similar to the MILES system the U.S. Army uses.
The Swiss SimFass system includes a laser module which attaches over the barrel and fires a laser each time a blank round is fired. The system also includes a vest and helmet cover with sensors on it to pick up when a soldier is hit by an “enemy” laser beam. I was never a big fan of the MILES system, but as it turned out, the SimFass system performed as advertised—even though the units we were issued were over 20 years old. Chalk it up to Swiss engineering.
The newer SimFass system actually includes laser modules for rocket launchers, grenades, and vehicles. There are also laser sensors on the buildings in their MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) city, which we were to train in later that day. Those modules can detect which rooms on a building have been “destroyed” when a tank fires on them.
After loading up our blank ammunition, testing the SimFass systems we were issued, and applying face camouflage, we were briefed on the mission and given the map coordinates we needed. We were to move about 18 kilometers on foot to make our infiltration into the MOUT city where we would execute a hostage-rescue mission.
In total, there were about 40 participants in the exercise, most of them OPFOR, and a few support personnel such as truck drivers. The rest of us were organized into three four-man commando teams: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Since we were to be deployed by truck in that order, we loaded into the Dura transport vehicle in reverse order: Charlie Team first and Alpha Team last. I was on Alpha Team with Diallo, Quentin, and Francois.
It took about three hours for us to drive from the southern part of Switzerland up to the northern tip of the country which borders France—called Jura—and the military facility called Bure, which includes the MOUT city and a large training area for armored vehicles. However, it should be noted that the entire country of Switzerland is basically a training area for the militia. They patrol through the villages and countryside, and on a few occasions, commando teams have even gotten into running firefights with the OPFOR in populated areas during the dead of night.
As we drove north, we passed through multiple tunnels the Swiss had drilled through the mountains for their highways. Passing from the French to the German-speaking regions of the country, the weather also changed. Quentin quoted something I had once told him, “If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training!” Soon, we were given a one-minute warning prior to reaching our infiltration point. Thankfully, both the rain and the fog had let up by then.
The vehicle slowed down to a few miles-per-hour, and each commando hopped off the back of the truck with his ruck and fled into the tree line to establish a security perimeter. It was here that we learned the colonel running the exercise had actually dropped us off about five kilometers before our planned infiltration point. He felt that we didn’t have enough elevation change in our infiltration route, so he helped us out a little bit with that. We also had an old-school collapsable stretcher to carry with us.
After a quick map check, we rucked up and started on our way…uphill.
Now, if this was one of those military or survival-themed television shows, I would ham it up for our readers and tell you that we huddled together for warmth at night and that we drank our own urine just to survive. This wasn’t like that. The exercise was physically exhausting, but nothing that an infantryman can’t handle.
We started uphill, and after a while entered a small village that looked like something right off of a postcard. An old woman walking down the street came over to tell one of the militia members how handsome he was. Opinions about the militia vary throughout Switzerland. The French-speaking Swiss are less pro-military than the German-speaking Swiss. However, there is also an urban versus rural divide in Switzerland with urban people less supportive of the military than the rural farmers. There are also young hippies and socialists in Switzerland who don’t like the military because they don’t like “the war”—as if Switzerland’s military is even remotely engaged in a war.
When this subject came up, Quentin scoffed. “We haven’t hurt anyone in 200 years,” he said, referring to the Swiss Army.
Halfway up the hill, we stopped for another map check, taking cover inside a barn. In the meantime, one of the farmers came in, smiled at us, jumped on his tractor, and drove away as if a bunch of armed soldiers pulling security in his barn were an everyday occurrence. Rucking up, we pushed the rest of the way uphill, which did a pretty good job at smoking the three commando teams, myself included. Now we were finally at what should have been our infiltration point.
From there, we moved across uneven terrain through the farmland and forests, mostly utilizing existing trails. Careful to avoid “landmines” left behind by the cattle, we swapped out who carried the stretcher every 20 minutes. Francois also rotated out who led the patrol, giving the younger members of the commando teams the chance to do some map reading. We walked throughout the afternoon, moving about 18 kilometers.
We kept a decent pace, but not fast enough, as the colonel wanted us to hit the objective before nightfall. After marching through some forest trails and up a few more hills, we jumped over a fence to be picked up by our Dura transport truck and driven to the MOUT city. Unloading the vehicle, we then built a terrain model to conduct our mission brief while eating some food and reapplying face camo in between.
Although the Swiss militia is professional and plenty motivated, this was where I noticed a big deficiency. While a briefing was prepared, almost no time was devoted to actual mission planning. A hasty terrain model was constructed and the briefing was never completed in full due to time restrictions. While it is important to train to conduct hasty ambushes and raids as well, the need to do in-depth tactical planning cannot be overemphasized. This is all the more true when the soldiers conducting the mission have little or no past experience working together. The militia would benefit immensely from following basic troop-leading procedures, pitching operations orders, and conducting mission rehearsals.
We ended up executing the hostage rescue mission with minimal planning and little intelligence beyond a basic map reconnaissance. Despite this, the men were motivated, and Sergeant Major Francois showed that he was able to improvise on the fly.
We crept through the woods, staying as quite as possible. We halted several times so Francois could conduct some leader’s recon. He successfully led the patrol into the closest covered and concealed position to the MOUT city. It was dusk when we launched our assault, quietly moving forward from building to building. The first commando team made contact, and we soon found ourselves fighting the OPFOR from building to building. Several times we kicked in windows to take a concealed route through one of the structures.
But the OPFOR was nickle-and-diming our small commando teams, and we continued to take casualties until I and several others were “killed” while bounding from one building to another. The exercise was then indexed and we were told to reset and try again.
This time, Francois led us to the closest covered and concealed position directly next to the target building. Assaulting from the tree line, we “shot” a roving patrol and entered the building. Once inside, I looked down the stairs to the basement and spotted one of the OPFOR. After “shooting” him, I moved down the stairs and engaged a second OPFOR, but was designated “wounded” by one of the training instructors. Other members of the commando teams came down behind me and continued to engage, one of them getting “killed” in the process.
In an action worthy of at least a purple heart, I hobbled along with my laser-tag-inflicted wound and tossed a grenade into the room that had not yet been cleared. Two “bodies” were laying on the floor when I walked inside. Soon after that, the mission was indexed. We cleared our weapons, removed the SimFass system from our rifles, and waited for the colonel to conduct an after action review.
Not understanding French, I can’t say much about that. Quentin translated for me most of the time. I will say that I think junior leaders should be brought in to contribute to the AAR process, as they have a frontline view of what went right and what went wrong during the exercise.
With the AAR concluded, it was time for the cookout. The Swiss know how to have a good time out in the field, but all it took was two beers for me to nearly fall asleep on my feet! The next morning, we woke up at 5 a.m. to begin our exfiltration. That stretcher we had taken turns carrying during the infiltration? Now we had to carry our rescued hostage out on it for five kilometers across tank trails in the early-morning fog.
There was no complaining from the militia men. They were all there because they wanted to be there. Without receiving any extra pay for their participation, they were there simply for the training value of the exercise. Taking turns carrying the stretcher through the mud was giving me some flashbacks to Special Forces selection. Arriving at the pickup point, we loaded onto the Dura one last time for transport back to the range where we initially staged from.
I think most of us fell asleep in the back of the truck at some point. I know I did.
Back at the range, we turned in our issued items and the colonel spoke to us one last time before coming by and shaking each of our hands. Once we got cleaned up a bit, we had one final task to complete—beers at a nearby cafe. Over a few brews, the commando teams were able to have more of an informal AAR, as well. The Swiss soldiers I worked with were polite and professional. No prima donnas or desperate “tactical operators” in this group. I was more than flattered when Francois took off his Asso Sion patch and handed it to me, asking if I would like to become a member of the association.
As we finished our beers, we shook hands as the soldiers left in ones and twos, leaving at the train station next to the cafe to head home after a tiring weekend.
The Swiss military system is very unique and reflects the country’s history, culture, and geography. The use of professional associations is almost like a NCO guild with access to military hardware and personnel. Citizen soldiers make up the vast majority of the Swiss military, and after their initial entry training, they complete their service in tandem with their regular jobs. It is a unique system, and one that works quite well for Switzerland.
However, all of this may leave some asking the question as to why Switzerland even has a military. Artillery, fighter jets, commando teams preparing to infiltrate behind enemy lines and conduct combat missions…what is the point? Switzerland has been permanently neutral since Napoleon invaded and forced the country to include neutrality in their constitution, as he feared that Swiss mercenaries would return to France.
Indeed, Switzerland has a storied history of being swords-for-hire. Throughout the middle ages, Swiss mercenaries were employed by the French as well as the oligarchs of Venice. In the more recent past, the Swiss prepared for Cold War contingencies, such as a Soviet invasion or even nuclear war—a possibility that motivated the government to build nuclear bunkers in every city and village in the country.
With the collapse of the USSR came the question of the relevancy of a military in a small Western European nation which maintains a policy of neutrality. Terrorism is not taken very seriously in Switzerland. The evidence of this can be seen clearly in the capital of Bern. I was shocked that I could walk right up to the Parliament building, and even inside if I so desired. This is a far cry from the security situation you would find at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
I would argue that the purpose behind Switzerland’s military today is largely the same as it was in the Cold War, although for different reasons. The military serves as a contingency and a deterrent. War is not outside the realm of possibility; consider that Switzerland’s next door neighbor, Germany, fought two world wars in the last century. As recently as 2008, there were serious fears that the Euro, and the European Union itself, would collapse. It would be reckless for military planners not to consider the prospect of open war between Western European nations if this possibility were to occur.
No one I met in Switzerland seriously foresees the possibility of war in Europe or fears that their country will be invaded anytime soon. The military is in place for future contingencies, security concerns which may arise on a future date which cannot be anticipated. When that emergency occurs, it will be far too late to raise an army at the last moment in response to an emergency.
With Panzer-Grenadiers acting as shock troops, commando teams that can conduct sabotage, and artillery pieces hidden all across the country, Switzerland’s defenses are made known to its neighbors so that, should war ever come, they would know that any invasion of neutral Switzerland would come at a great cost.
If you want peace, you have to prepare for war.
The author would like to give a special thanks to the Swiss military and all of the Swiss soldiers he worked with for hosting him and letting him participate in their training.