“Do you even operate?” To answer this recurring Internet meme amid the SOF community’s SOCMINT (social media intelligence) chatter, I’ve decided to write about the controversial SOF capability of a neutral country. When talking about Switzerland as a nation that employs a modern military force, most get hung up on the notion that a neutral country would even have an army (let alone an army with SOF capability). Apart from its notoriety as a nation of snowy mountaintops, melted cheese fondue, and delicious chocolate, Switzerland’s longstanding history of deploying its mercenary regiments throughout European conflicts is often overlooked.

Part I of this series focuses on Switzerland’s history, its mercenary regiments, the creation of its national army, and the formation of its SOF units and its currently commissioned Special Forces Command (SFC). Part II will focus on the country’s Special Forces Training Center, its militia system, and its Grenadier Battalions—a militia formation within the SFC, comparable to the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. Wrapping up, part III will detail the country’s premier SF unit, the Armed Forces Reconnaissance Detachment 10, its creation, mission, training, and daily struggles for its existence as part of a neutral country’s military force.

Swiss mercenaries dominate medieval Europe

Even before the Swiss Confederation was established in 1291, its mercenaries from the three founding cantons (Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden) were among the most feared and coveted warriors throughout medieval Europe. This was largely due to their revolutionary tactics against their principal enemy, the House of Habsburg, in which the peasant mercenaries relied on massed combat with pike and halberd against the wealthier knights of Habsburg. Between the 13th century and the late 15th century, Swiss mercenaries held a virtual monopoly throughout Europe and were repeatedly hired to fight expanding empires.

In 1505, as a result of their distinguished reputation, Pope Julius II requested Swiss mercenaries to protect the Vatican. With the exception of a few years during the 16th-century Sack of Rome, the Swiss Guards have stood guard at the Vatican for centuries, and are to this day one of the longest-standing military formations in the world.

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Swiss Guards wearing ceremonial renaissance-era uniforms

During the 16th century, France became the first country to establish a standing regiment of Swiss mercenaries. Seeing the financial benefits of mercenary regiments, members of the Swiss Confederacy formed such contracts with other states such as Spain, Holland, Venice, England, and Poland. As a result, Swiss mercenaries saw battle in almost every major conflict in Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, regularly facing fellow mercenaries on the opposing side. Despite suffering heavy losses of its citizens during years of conflicts, Swiss politicians and businessmen relished the financial gains they made by exporting such regiments to fight for other countries, much like the modern private military companies today.

The Swiss military during the 20th century

This trend took a downward turn during the 19th century, when France and Holland heavily reduced the number of foreigner fighters in their armies. At the same time, the Swiss Constitution of 1848 set the groundwork for its first federal army (Bundeswehr) and declared mandatory service for all its male citizens (Wehrpflicht). In 1859, the Swiss Federal Council prohibited the formation of Swiss regiments to fight for other nations (with the exception of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican), ending the military entrepreneurship after centuries of steady income.

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During the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, disputes among politicians from Switzerland’s semi-sovereign cantons greatly influenced its national army, rendering it virtually ineffective. This did not change throughout the First and Second World War, when only a fraction of the Swiss Armed Forces could be put on active duty to enforce and patrol the national borders. However, after the Second World War, and especially during the Cold War, the Swiss government had a change of heart and massively expanded its armed forces.

They accomplished this by increasing mandatory service for its citizens, which resulted in a force of almost 900,000 soldiers (just shy of 20 percent of the entire population at the time). In addition, the Army Reform of 1961 (“Armee 61”) introduced new military divisions and organized the military in such a way as to best hold a defensive perimeter while launching counterattacks in the case of an invasion by Soviet-influenced powers. Countless bunkers and mountain fortifications were built throughout the Alps, some of which are still in use today. The bunkers, which could accommodate hundreds of soldiers, were typically equipped with field hospitals, sleeping quarters, and kitchens.

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A bunker installation, with cannons for defense, in the Swiss Alps

Formation of the Special Forces Command

After the Cold War, further army reforms—in 1995 and 2005 (Armee 95 and Armee XXI)—reduced the number of soldiers in the national army to 120,000 and adjusted its rank and organizational structure to NATO standards. In addition, the reforms re-tasked and reorganized specialized units such as the Grenadiers (Army) and Para-Recon (Air Force) into the Grenadier Command 1 (a joint task force for special operations units). However, the Grenadier Command still predominantly consisted of conscripted soldiers in a militia system that did not have the training for immediate and/or overseas deployments. Consequently, and as required by Switzerland’s Federal Council and parliament, the Armed Forces Reconnaissance Detachment 10 (ARD10) was established in 2004, which would finally give the Grenadier Command a professional unit with the ability to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Since 2010, the Grenadier Command has been renamed the Special Forces Command (SFC), and now encompasses the most elite military units in the Swiss Armed Forces (similar to the U.S. Special Operations Command, just a lot smaller). In addition, its chain of command has been significantly shortened, as it was moved out of the Army and placed under the Armed Forces Joint Staff (C2 of all operations and missions conducted by Swiss Armed Forces, and directed by the chief of the army and the federal councilor in charge of the Department of Defense). Again, this is very similar to how the U.S. Special Operations Command is a unified combatant command under the direct leadership of the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff, which are ultimately led by the commander-in-chief.

SFC organization and sub-commands

However, it should be noted that the number of professional soldiers within the entire SFC amounts to only about five percent. This includes various leadership positions, as well as all members of the ARD 10 and the Military Police Special Detachment. The remaining 95 percent consists of militia personnel that serve a limited number of days (depending on function and rank). Switzerland’s militia system requires all male citizens to serve approximately six months of basic and advanced training, with an additional month each following year for a fixed period of time.

Typically, it takes around 8-10 years to fully complete mandatory service for Swiss men (taking into account that most conscripts reschedule their yearly duty once or twice due to studies, work, or temporarily living abroad). While women are exempt from mandatory service, they can choose to enlist and will then serve the same amount as their fellow male soldiers (depending on function and rank).