Technology opens cracks in Swiss defence

The new system should enable commanders to see all the friendly forces on a battlefield Keystone

A high-tech Swiss army project has been put on hold amid fears that it may become obsolete before it can be implemented.

This content was published on October 29, 2009 - 16:54

The system now being called into question is a form of so-called network centric warfare (NCW), already tried and tested by the United States and other military powers.

"As platforms such as tanks, aircraft and vehicles have evolved they have developed various means of communicating with each other," Tony Skinner of the military magazine Janes Defence Weekly told

"One aspect of NCW is taking those existing communications links and creating a wider network for them to plug into so the information they are collecting can be shared," he explained.

The government initially planned to spend SFr1.8 billion ($1.76 billion) on the project and to date it has cost SFr702 million. The risk that the Swiss version might turn out to be a white elephant has added fuel to a long-running debate on the role of the army.

Task force

Defence Minister Ueli Maurer has suspended investment in the NCW system and asked a task force to come in and sort out the IT morass in the Swiss armed forces.

"We really have problems with our IT services," defence ministry spokesman Sebastian Huber told "There are around 500 software programmes and 2,000 applications. That's why Minister Maurer has ordered the task force to begin work."

"It's not a question of buying more or less software but of analysing the current situation and finding solutions to organise the IT and communications branch," he added.

The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger newspaper pointed the finger at parliament which it claims habitually approves funding for military projects without properly understanding what's involved.

The two chambers of parliament are supposed to be guided by their respective security committees, which the newspaper says are not on top of their brief, particularly in the case of the technology debacle.

One military source told that an information day organised for committee members this week was poorly attended with only nine of a possible 40-plus politicians taking part.

Modern army?

Maurer, who has been in the job for less than a year, has presented himself as the new broom sweeping clean. But behind his no-nonsense approach is a fundamental difference of opinion on what the true mission of the Swiss army should be, and almost everyone in Switzerland has an opinion on that.

Take Tuesday's editorial in the French-language newspaper Le Temps. "As he [Maurer] explained in the Sunday press, he wants more funds for tanks, munitions and arms. To do what, if not to strengthen the defence of the country in strictly territorial terms?"

"A modern army cannot concentrate purely on territorial defence. It has to adapt to real dangers, which range from the threat of terrorism to the challenges of energy supply. It should be based on interconnection and inter-operability. The army Ueli Maurer is dreaming of seems to be very far from these objectives."

The two camps can be divided into reformists and traditionalists. Former Justice Minister Rudolf Friedrich, calling for an end to the "enclave mentality and dogmatic neutrality", is firmly in the modernising camp.

Writing in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper he explained that Switzerland's destiny and security were now tied to Europe's and outlined a vision of Switzerland collaborating with Nato, perhaps in a bilateral relationship similar to the one maintained with the European Union.

"Because a threat, if it ever became acute, would not be against a single country but against the whole of Europe and that would put Switzerland on the line too ..."

"This fact calls for a fundamental rethink. Because our security depends on Europe's, logic requires that we make a contribution to that. Actions abroad and joint exercises with other countries, specifically with the air force, anti-aircraft and staff, are a beginning. But more is needed; what is needed is a completely different army."

Mission mishmash

"Fading borders" and flexibility are mentioned on the Swiss army's own website under the heading 'force development' but military insiders complain that the army lacks direction and a coherent mission.

It is almost a decade since the last Security Policy Report was issued by the defence ministry and its replacement is currently being drafted, with publication set for the new year.

Will this report, which is meant to act as basis for discussion on the army's role for the next decade, contain the answers so many have been waiting for? Huber from the defence ministry indicated to that the report would not be fundamentally different from its predecessor.

"There will be some changes to take into account the events of the last 10 years, such as September 11, Madrid and London [bombings] but no fundamental changes such as those brought about by the fall of the Iron Curtain, for example, which really transformed the security construction of our world," Huber said.

In brief

"The premise behind network centric warfare (NCW) is that if you have a number of different units in the battlefield, they become more valuable to the force commander if they are able share information on their whereabouts and actions."

"For smaller militaries that are looking to introduce such networking technologies, it could be possible to do this through a close to a complete system."

"The US has been developing these kinds of technologies for a number of years across the various services and taken a lot of the risk in developing these new systems. As a result the defence industry has been able to develop a range of products to offer to other militaries."

"One aspect of NCW that is of benefit is the introduction of combat identification systems. Being able to see all the friendly forces on the battlefield on a common picture should help reduce casualties and certainly reduce friendly fire incidents."

"However, you are never going to have the perfect system, just as you are never going to have the perfect laptop. Militaries need to develop faster procurement cycles to keep up with the pace of technology. Otherwise as the technology develops, the old systems will be overtaken."

- Tony Skinner of Jane's Defence Weekly

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Army mission

Three main missions have been assigned to the Swiss armed forces:

Civil affairs support, including military disaster relief, maintaining air sovereignty, support of police and border guards and protection of conferences and facilities.

Area protection and defence against military attack.

Peace support aimed at consolidating peace abroad and preventing renewed outbreak of hostilities. This is carried out on the basis of an international mandate.

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