Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one and part two here.
The Armed Forces Reconnaissance Detachment 10 (ARD 10) is Switzerland’s only professional Special Forces unit. Despite serving a neutral country, the unit can hold its own compared to many of its European counterparts, such as Germany’s KSK, Denmark’s Jaegerkorps, Holland’s KCT, Norway’s FSK, or France’s 1er RPIMa. The only difference, and maybe the most crucial, is that members of the ARD 10 lack a substantial amount of combat experience compared to their European brothers. This can mainly be attributed to the fact that Switzerland’s politicians still cling to neutrality in the hope that they will remain insulated from the ongoing terrorist atrocities occurring around the globe. As a result, Switzerland is not part of NATO, and with the exception of peace-support operations, refuses to publicly contribute in coalition efforts abroad.
As mentioned in part one of this series, the unit is still in its infancy, barely a decade old, and therefore still struggles for its right to exist among politicians and Swiss nationals. High-ranking officials who believe that such a unit will negatively affect the country’s neutrality have regularly called for the unit to disband altogether. Switzerland’s direct democracy allows its citizens, who refuse to let go of their traditional values and who still live in their ‘neutral’ bubble, to greatly influence the country’s domestic and national defense apparatus.
Consequently, there’s a false sense of security that not only affects the country’s Special Operations community, but also downgrades various security checks and procedures at major sites across the country to worryingly low levels. This becomes evident when visiting the capital city of Bern. Walking up to and into the Swiss parliament building during parliamentary sessions requires nothing more than some sort of official identification.
Nevertheless, when parliament decided to create the ARD 10 back in 2004, the unit’s mandate included the following key tasks:
- Special reconnaissance and intelligence gathering
- Direct action and CSAR
- The protection of Swiss nationals, troops, and key facilities abroad
- Rescuing Swiss nationals from crisis areas across the globe
- Military assistance, training, and security consulting
Candidates who wish to join the unit undergo a rigorous multi-step selection process. Unlike most other countries, selection is open to all branches and functions of the Swiss Armed Forces, and to both male and female candidates who have successfully completed their initial six-month mandatory service. However, it has been shown that a large percentage of those who successfully complete selection come from a SOF or infantry background (grenadiers, para-recon, infantrymen, etc.).
Before selection, potential candidates must pass a two-day physical screening test. The minimum physical requirements for the physical screening are clearly outlined and known to prospective candidates before attending the test. They amount to 50 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups, a 3.1-mile run in under 24 minutes, a five-mile run in full combat gear with a 33-pound pack in under 58 minutes, a 15.5-mile run in under 3.5 hours in full combat gear with a 55-pound pack, and a 300-meter swim in under 10 minutes.
Other requirements include a good command of a second national language (German, French, or Italian), a valid driver’s license, and a good command of the English language. Successful candidates move on to a medical and psychological evaluation, as well as an interview with cadre members and the CO of the unit.
Candidates that screen positive up to this point will be invited to selection, which is held once a year. It lasts three weeks and can be compared to any modern Special Forces selection. An emphasis is placed on physical and psychological evaluations, including timed long-distance land-navigation courses in rough terrain (most of Switzerland is covered by the Alps, so go figure). It tests a candidate’s motivation, their willingness to work effectively under stress, and the prospective soldier’s ability to work in a team and on his or her own.
Apart from the physical assessment, the unit’s selection course puts a significant focus on its psychological evaluations. During the three weeks, candidates can at any point voluntarily withdraw from selection. Those who stick it out and complete the three weeks undergo a final evaluation by cadre members, who decide which candidates will be selected to join the unit. As the ARD 10 is still fairly young, it is difficult to make projections as to what the attrition rate is. However, so far, out of the 300-400 annual candidates who sign up to try out for the unit, usually less than two percent are ultimately selected.
Those who get selected begin training at the unit within a couple of months after completing selection. The new recruits undergo a 12-month qualification course where they are taught the basics skills to operate effectively and safely as a member of an SF team. Instructions include a basic comprehension of ethics, intercultural competences, language and communication skills, international security policies, institutional law, and geography.
In addition, candidates undergo extensive training in marksmanship and weapons-handling, close-quarter battle and hand-to-hand combat, demolitions and entry-techniques, tactics and leadership skills, the MDMP (military decision-making process), protective-detail procedures, combat survival, direct action and special reconnaissance skills, surveillance, TCCC (tactical combat casualty care), and various infiltration techniques. Following the 12-month qualification course, the recruits are split up and assigned to various SF teams, where they become full-fledged members of the unit.
However, just like in other SF units around the world, training for new members doesn’t end there. Despite having a basic comprehension of the required skills to function effectively in an SF team, various procedures and techniques are revisited in numerous training cycles that are designed to hone their skills to a higher level. In addition to integrating themselves into the various teams, the new members will also go through advanced skills courses and training on advanced infiltration techniques.
As mentioned before, new recruits learn about the various infiltration techniques at a very basic level during their qualification course (such as static-line parachuting or amphibious training). After completing the 12 months, however, the ARD 10 soldiers are taught advanced skills in a specific infiltration method. These modules include the military free-fall (MFF) school, the combat diver school, a mountain warfare course, and a mobility troop course. Each of those courses is designed to teach the respective SF soldiers the various techniques and procedures required to become an expert at utilizing such infiltration methods under austere conditions.
In addition to the infiltration modules, ARD 10 members receive training in advanced skills. Much like members of an ODA of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, the soldiers of an ARD 10 team complement each other with different advanced skills to create an effective and well-versed team capable of performing the required duties. The advanced skills courses include a team leader course, a weapons specialist course, a demolition and breaching course, a sniper and surveillance course, a medic course, and a communications specialist course.
Read Next: Swiss SOF (Pt. 1): A Not-So-Neutral Pedigree
Tools and working conditions
Similar to the grenadiers, ARD 10 members commonly use a SIG 553 as their primary weapon. Depending on mission parameters or specialty of the ARD 10 soldiers, the FN Minimi, SIG 716, or a PDW are also utilized as a primary weapon. Such weapon systems are typically equipped with various special operations modifications such as optics, lasers and lights, suppressors, and a selection of grips or bipods. As a secondary weapon system, ARD 10 soldiers are equipped with the Glock 17, or the Glock 26 for concealed-carry operations. Depending on individual preferences, the Glock 17 can also be equipped with a laser/light module and a reflex sight. In addition to these weapon systems, the unit has access to a vast amount of other weapons and gadgets that they may need for their missions.
Despite the fact that an official military hierarchy exists at the unit, the interaction between the different ranks at the unit is very casual and therefore encourages all soldiers, regardless of their rank, to contribute and present their ideas or thoughts during the various stages of an operation. It should also be noted that the military hierarchy at the unit is based on the function of each soldier and not on their rank. This means that it is common to have team leaders who hold a lower rank than the soldiers they lead. Similar to the wide variety of ranks held by ARD 10 soldiers, members at the unit are between the ages of 22–40+ years old (with an average age of above 30). Only a few have served in the military all of their adult life; most of them have backgrounds in the civilian world (academics, engineers, carpenters, musicians, etc.).
New and unused
It can be concluded that the unit delivers all the right capabilities to be a versatile and effective combat unit. The soldiers are undoubtedly motivated, clearly well-selected and trained, and definitely well-equipped to handle the required tasks and missions that the unit was initially set up to perform. The question then arises as to why it still has not seen any significant action? Why spend so much money on such a capable unit when its deployment is not an option in the foreseeable future? Would you buy a Ferrari and then not drive it? Probably not.
In addition to the nonexistent political inclination to deploy the unit alongside coalition forces in current hotspots around the world, the Swiss Armed Forces also lack a substantial amount of support capabilities for SOF units. From logistics to unit support groups and air capabilities, Switzerland simply cannot project and support an SF unit in the timeframe that is required. While the ARD 10 soldiers might be ready to roll, the capability to deploy them in a timely fashion is still nonexistent.
This means that when the unit is deployed, it must typically rely on other nations to support them abroad, which in turn requires more time for coordination, planning, and preparation—not to mention additional expenditures to pay for those services. Furthermore, in the unlikely event that Switzerland’s politicians would agree to actually deploy the unit, they would then also have to assess to what extent an affiliation with another country would affect their neutrality.
Switzerland’s decision makers would much rather hire such services in the form of a private military company tasked to deal with arising issues, which is not only cheaper, but would also minimize the risk of casualties and guarantee the preservation of their ostensible neutrality.
Unless the mission parameters allow for a logistically self-sustaining operation—one that does not require significant backup, or is set in a somewhat permissive environment that can be accessed by commercial travel—it is unlikely the unit will see much action in the near future. It becomes clear why, with so many barriers standing in the way of a deployment, Switzerland’s premier SF unit lacks such a significant amount of real-world combat experience.
There is, however, a potential light at the end of the tunnel. The Swiss and Austrian Armed Forces are trying to launch a pilot program for 2016 wherein they would hold joint basic training for their recruits, as well as share some of their respective air capabilities. As both countries run their armies on an extremely limited budget, the joint effort would create synergies by significantly increasing training opportunities without exceeding their budgets.
In addition, both the Swiss and Austrian federal ministers of defense have agreed to hold talks with other non-allied and neutral countries in Europe in order to discuss their future roles in various conflicts around the globe. Among the nations to participate in these talks are Scandinavian countries and Ireland. This could well be Switzerland’s first step away from its ‘neutrality-bubble’ and toward becoming a contributing Western nation in future theaters of war.
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