“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.