National Service in Review: The Swiss Conscription Model

Continuing our series on national service we turn to Switzerland.

To many it might come as a surprise that small, neutral Switzerland not only has an army but a mandatory conscription system as well. At the beginning of 2018, Switzerland began a 5 year Armed Forces reform program. One of the first elements to be changed was the service model. All male citizens are obliged to attend a one day orientation at the age of 16. Thereafter they attend a 2 day recruitment where the conscripts pass through a battery of physical, psychological and intelligence tests and a one on one interview with the commanding officer of the recruitment center. At the end of these two days, those found fit for serviceĀ  will know what corps and function they will serve in as well as the exact date of the beginning of their basic training. For those who are found unfit for service or conscientious objectors there is either the the option of the civil protection service (which has its own but similar service model) or to pay 3% of one’s income for a certain number of years.
Every year approximately 20’000 recruits begin their military service. This usually is in the form of 18 weeks of basic training (known as Rekrutenschule or Ecole de Recrues). At the end of these 18 weeks, they are incorporated into one of the battalions of the Swiss Armed Forces and enter the second stage of their service.
The second stage of service is a yearly repetition course (Wiederholungskurs or Cours de Repetition) lasting between 3-4 weeks with their battalion. Every member of the Armed Forces has a certain number of service days he or she needs to serve. Logically, Non-Commissioned Officers (Sergeants, Sergeant Majors and Company Quartermasters) and Officers have a higher number of days to serve than the regular conscript soldier. During a repetition course ome material and all vehicles are take out of and returned to one of the five big logistics centres, most of a Swiss soldiers personal equipment, including firearms are kept at home. It is the personal responsibility of each soldier to make sure that his equipement is clean and ready prior to his next repetition course.

20181112_153408(Shooting training for Swiss soldiers during their repetition course)

Although service is only mandatory for the male half of the population, women may join up if they are so inclined. Recently, there has been increased discussion about making military service mandatory for women as well. The most recent statistics indicate that there are currently around 1’150 women serving in the Swiss Armed Forces.
In Switzerland, the debate about the necessity of the Armed Forces and its future continues. There is even talk of creating a universal national service not dissimilar to the SNU in France that would allow for both men and women to serve, as well as raising the age by which this service must be completed. This would iron out some of the major issues faced by the Armed Forces including that women and foreigners are currently at an advantage in this regard when it comes to professional careers as well as the on-going unspoken mental division between “members of the Military” and “civilians”. Nevertheless, service in the Swiss Armed Forces plays an important and often over looked element of the social fabric of Switzerland. Not only is conscription a long standing tradition for Swiss men, it also creates an underlying social bond. When meeting someone for the first time, more often than not one can quickly find common ground in discussing one’s experiences in the Armed Forces. If a new universal service model is instated in Switzerland, this would only strengthen the social bond and fabric of the alpine democracy.
On a more personal note, I went through the pre-2018 reform system of recruitment and training. I feel the reforms to the recruitment and training structure were much needed and are now churning out more experienced leaders than previously. Having served with a number of women in my near 600 days of service I feel that more women in the Armed Forces would be hugely beneficial. Not only would it remove the “Magic Unicorn” aura that is sometimes found when only one or two women are in a unit of 30 to 150 men, but it would also change the political debate about national security and the future of the armed forces in Switzerland.
Comparatively the Swiss and French system previously reviewed are quite different in structure and duration. And yet the Swiss conscription model achieves the goals that the Service National Universel (SNU) has set out to accomplish. I am unsure whether or not a Swiss style conscription model would work for France. This is impart due to the different relationship French society has to and with the it military compared to Switzerland. On the other hand the logistical issues faced by the SNU would be significantly greater.

For our next review we will focus on Finland. A reserve officer of the Finnish Army took time to speak to us about the structure of the national service system in Finland and its role in Finnish society.


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