In part one of this series, we established that the majority of the Swiss SOF community is made up of militia personnel. This means those soldiers are actually civilian professionals such as doctors, bankers, or farmers, and serve their country for a limited amount of time each year.
The militia system
In Switzerland, male citizens between the ages 17-26 are required to serve their country for a specific amount of time. While most choose to perform their mandatory service spread out over a number of years, with an initial six-month stint followed by a couple of weeks each subsequent year, it is sometimes also possible to serve the entire length in one go, resulting in a total of almost one year of continuous service. It is common for Swiss citizens to enter the service early on in their lives, usually after graduating high school or finishing an apprenticeship. Despite being able to commence mandatory service at the age of 26, it is extremely rare to find recruits who are older than 21 years.
Following a two-day recruitment phase, depending on their test scores, young recruits are assigned to a specific base where they perform their first six months of mandatory service while receiving basic and advanced training. Depending on their function, recruits sometimes have the option to attend their basic training at a base located close to where they live. This is an extremely appealing option for most recruits, as they are typically allowed to go home for weekends, and a shorter commute usually means a longer weekend before heading back to base each Sunday evening. However, in true SOF fashion where everything has to suck, SOF recruits can only be stationed at one base—located in the southern part of Switzerland, in the heart of the Alps, at the end of a remote valley. This obviously makes the commute home an exhaustive undertaking for the majority of SOF recruits who don’t live in that area.
Nevertheless, if you plan on visiting Switzerland on a weekend, and do so by pubic transport, you will be completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of soldiers commuting to or from their base, sometimes with their rifle strapped to their backs. During the periods where Swiss citizens perform their mandatory service, all soldiers in uniform are eligible to use public transport for free, and most use this opportunity even if it means sitting on a train for four hours to travel home for the weekend. Soldiers are typically allowed to go home from early morning Saturday until Sunday evening.
Because there is only one base for SOF recruits, its candidates come from all over the country and are put together into one company. They speak French, German, and Italian. Even though Switzerland has four official languages, Romansh is becoming an increasingly rare spoken language, and those who do speak it also know either German or Italian. While some recruits use the opportunity to brush up on another national language by integrating themselves in a French-speaking platoon, for example, the urge to compete against another language group always persists.
Apart from the mostly healthy competition between language groups, the multilingual nature of Switzerland’s military often creates confusion when communicating on radios or SATCOMs. While such issues are negligible in the repetitive and unrealistically rehearsed training exercises, such problems could be extremely treacherous in real life missions.
After serving the initial six months, the soldiers return home with all their gear, put their rifle in their closet, hang up their uniform, and get back to their civilian jobs. To remain proficient at their military duties, they will be recalled each year for a repetition course of 3-4 weeks until they have served the mandatory time required by their rank and function.
Special Forces Training Center (SFTC)
Switzerland’s Special Forces Training Center (Ausbildungszentrum Spezialkräfte – AZ SK) is part of the Special Forces Command (SFC) and consists of various schools and courses for eligible members of the Swiss Armed Forces. Similar to the U.S. Army’s JFK Special Warfare Center and School, the SFTC provides entry-level as well as advanced training and education.
SFTC courses include, but are not limited to, the Grenadier course, the Grenadier Reconnaissance course, the Para-Recon course, sniper school, SERE school, and various NCO and officer courses. Its primary goal is to recruit, select, and train soldiers in order to supplement the Grenadier battalions and Para-Recon company. In addition, it develops and implements new technologies and techniques for the Grenadier battalions.
The Grenadier battalions are Switzerland’s version of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. They specialize in direct action (DA) and special reconnaissance (SR) capabilities for special operations. The three battalions (Gren Bat 20, 30, and 40) consist of three DA Companies: a SR company, a HQ company, and a ground support company.
The primary weapon used by the Grenadiers has only recently been updated from the SIG 550 with iron sights to a more decked-out SIG 553 LB with an Aimpoint Micro and booster, ATPIAL aiming system, and vertical front grip. As a secondary weapon system, they still use the SIG P220 chambered in 9mm. However, it is rumored that the Glock 17, which has recently been adapted by the Swiss SF unit ARD-10, will soon replace the P220. The Grenadiers also employ the FN Minimi in 5.56mm, the Remington 870, the Sako TRG-42 and the PGM Hecate II as sniper rifles, and various other heavy weapon systems.
Having only recently upgraded their primary weapon system, the Grenadiers now also want to adjust the soldier’s LBE (load-bearing equipment). While they currently still use a two-mag LBE with limited carrying capacity and no modular adjustment, a plate carrier system is in the works and should be distributed among the militia SOF units within the next couple of years. A plate carrier will also force the Grenadiers to start training more frequently with ballistic plates, which is still only done very rarely during the training cycle.
To be selected to train for the Grenadier battalions, potential candidates attend a two-day recruitment along with every other Swiss male citizen serving their mandatory service. The recruitment entails standard physical, medical, and psychological tests, and provides information on the specific schools in the military. Depending on the overall score of their tests, recruits can then pitch their preferences in a final discourse with the commanding officer, who ultimately assigns them to a specific school.
Typically, those with a good score get to choose, while those with poor scores get assigned. To attend the Grenadier school, potential candidates must maintain an above-average score, volunteer for service in the Grenadier battalions, and attend an additional aptitude test at the SFTC. The two-day aptitude test focuses primarily on physical assessments and is designed to weed out a first layer of candidates who do not possess the physical stamina to go through training.
Once candidates have passed the aptitude test, they will begin basic and advanced training at the SFTC a few weeks later. Training starts twice a year with numbers varying between 150 and 200 recruits per cycle. During the first 11 weeks, recruits undergo a constant selection and assessment process. Candidates who fail to meet any of the physical or psychological standards, or those who do not posses the required mentality and attitude, will be reassigned to a different school (usually as an infantryman). The attrition rate for this school is somewhere between 30-40 percent, resulting in less than 100 new Grenadiers per cycle (for both DA and SR companies).
Part of the selection and assessment phase includes specialized training in either DA- or SR-specific courses. Recruits who will be assigned to DA companies are trained in numerous weapon and breaching techniques. They also focus their training on urban environments. Similarly, recruits assigned to SR companies attend specific training and courses that educate them in various reconnaissance skills.
After the selection phase, recruits are promoted to the rank of private and undergo advanced training in various areas, including combat casualty care, mountain warfare, and various infiltration techniques. To conclude the six-month-long cycle, the soldiers are run through a number of training exercises, culminating in a four-week-long final training exercise.
After the six months of basic and advanced training, the soldiers have concluded most of their mandatory service and are required to return each year for 3-4 weeks to refresh and update their skills and training. The total number of mandatory service days for SOF soldiers depends on the rank of the soldier. The higher the rank, the longer their service is required (privates: 285 days, NCOs: 425 days, OF-1s: 600 days, etc.).
Clearly, the Swiss militia enjoy an abundance of training compared to most modern SOF units around the globe. Due to the neutral nature of Swiss foreign politics, they are not confronted with the pressure of various deployment cycles, allowing them the freedom to train all year round. While this certainly produces some of the world’s best-trained soldiers, they still lack the most important aspect of the entire equation: the real-world operational experience.
Stay tuned for the final chapter of this series on Switzerland’s premiere SF unit.