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Civilian service boom "shows army crisis"

Civilian service can be done with a forestry department

Calls to make it make it more difficult to opt out of the army in favour of civilian service are unlikely to be successful, a leading military expert believes.

This content was published on August 27, 2010 - 09:12

Hans-Ulrich Ernst was for many years general secretary of the defence ministry, and is now a knowledgeable critic of the army. He tells swissinfo.ch that reintroducing screening for those who do not want to join the army is pointless.

At present, all able-bodied Swiss men between the ages of 20 and 36 must serve 260 days of military service.

Screening, in which conscientious objectors had to undergo written and oral assessments by a committee to explain their motives, was scrapped in April 2009. Now the only way out is to opt for civilian community service on ethical grounds. This lasts 50 per cent longer than military service.

Despite the extra time they have to serve, the number of men choosing the civilian option leapt from 1,800 to nearly 9,000.

Parliamentarians of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party think this weakens the Swiss army’s defensive ability. Their representatives in the Security Commission of the House of Representatives have put forward proposals aimed at reducing the civilian service numbers.

In particular, they want to reintroduce screening.

"Experience shows that apart from a lot of extra work there was very little to show for the screening, since only a very small proportion of applicants for civilian service was turned down on those grounds," Ernst told swissinfo.ch.

Overmanning

Given that the army has too many recruits anyway, it can absorb the shortfall, he said. This will still be true when the effects of lower birth rates are felt in next few years, he added.

"Switzerland has around six million Swiss citizens, and an active army of 140,000. Finland, with 5.5 million citizens has 22,600 active army members,” Ernst pointed out.

He cited the example of neighbouring Germany, which is more than ten times larger than Switzerland, where the defence minister wants to reduce the army to 170,000.

For Ernst, the fact that so many are opting for civilian service is a reflection of the existential crisis that the army is currently facing. Too many units do not have anything sensible to do.

And yet, despite overmanning, the troops are not always ready when they are needed, says Ernst. “In the 1999 floods only half the members of a rescue battalion could be called upon. The others were certainly motivated, but could not change the dates of their refresher courses.

Helping out

Ernst has no desire to see compulsory service abolished. His proposal is that 40 per cent of recruits should do their entire army service in one go, rather than, as at present, attending annual three-week refresher courses once they have done their basic training.

This would mean more people would be available at a time.

“Then in cases like those floods they would all have been there right away, ready to get involved,” Ernst said.

The fact that the army is searching for a role is illustrated by the use of recruits to help with security during the 2008 European football championship, or to prepare Ski World Cup pistes in winter.

Although the event organisers are only too glad for the help, and it may enhance the army’s public image, such work has nothing to do with defence.

Ernst thinks such tasks would be ideal for men doing civilian service, thus relieving the army.

The head of the civilian service, Samuel Werenfels, had assured him that the service would be ready to do this, he added.

Renat Künzi, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from German by Julia Slater)

Civilian service

The number of men choosing the civilian option lept from 1,800 to more than 8,500 after screening was stopped.

Parliament is concerned about the increasing number of men opting for civilian service. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate want a revision of the Civilian Service Law.

A majority of the Security Commission of the House of Representatives wants to make it more difficult to do civilian service. On Tuesday, it called for a revision of the law and the readoption of screening. But its Senate counterpart is against such a move after just one year.

The cabinet says that the civilian service boom does not harm the army in the mid-term.

The Group for a Switzerland without an Army has launched an initiative against compulsory military service.

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