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A Compact and Flexible Air Force; Payerne, September 4, 2004

The Swiss Air Force, Part 1; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

The Swiss Air Force has a compact and flexible air force due to the lack of budgets and a limited air space in the relatively small country. The air force has modern aircraft and the country does not have an offensive policy. The main tasks of the Swiss Air Force is defending the national air space and to deliver airlift capacity.

The first way of flying which was introduced in Switzerland was balloon flying. The Swiss balloonist Eduard Spelterini developed the first military balloon flights. Support was found in 1914 to set up an Air Corps. The outbreak of the First World War changed this drastically and Theodor Real, who was a cavalry officer, was assigned with the formation of a Flying Corps. He possessed 3 civilian aircraft at the airport of Bern and started to train the first 9 pilots at an improvised airfield near Wankdorf Stadium. Switzerland remained neutral and isolated during the conflict and the air force limited its activities to training and reconnaissance patrols. An official air force was founded in the 30s when the international situation in Europe was escalating. There was a lot of money invested in Messerschmitt Bf 109, Macchi MC.202 and Morane-Saulnier D03800 aircraft. The Swiss Air Force was an independent military service and it was officially established in October 1936. Although the Swiss remained neutral during the Second World War, it had several violations of its airspace by various countries which were involved in the war. During the invasion of France in 1940, it was mainly the German aircraft which violated the Swiss airspace regularly. The Swiss possessed several German planes and 2 of their own planes were lost. Later during the war, the Allied bombers violated the Swiss airspace regularly. These aircraft were damaged and tried to land in a safe area without being captured by the Germans. In total, the Swiss airspace was 6501 times violated by other countries during the Second World War. About 198 foreign aircraft made an emergency landing and 56 aircraft crashed in the country.

After the Second World War, the Air Corps was renamed to Swiss Air Force. The Swiss Air Force became a separate service which was independent of the army under its current name the Schweizer Luftwaffe in 1966. The Swiss purchased multiple aircraft in this period, such as; the Vampire, the Venom and the Hunter. These aircraft served

in the air force until the early 90s. The Swiss Air Force did not have enough capacity to answer the nuclear threat from the east. In response, the traditional Swiss hangars were built in the mountains of the country. Switzerland was unable to develop its own aircraft and therefore the Mirage III was "of the shelf" purchased in France in 1964. The new air defense concept was introduced in Switzerland in 1970. The new Swiss policy was only to defend the national airspace. This led to the purchase of the F-5 Tiger in 1978. The aircraft were assigned to various interceptor units. The global and military structure in Europe was changing at the end of the 80s with the fall of the Soviet Union. This led to the need for a multirole aircraft for the Swiss Air Force. After an evaluation it was decided to buy the F/A-18 Hornett. The F-18 is able to land on an aircraft carrier. The Swiss authorities assumed this was the perfect aircraft to operate from the short Swiss runways. In total, 33 F-18s were built under license in Emmen in Switzerland for the Swiss Air Force between 1996 and 1999.

In 1995, the Swiss government introduced a new plan. The only intention of the Swiss Air Force would be defending the national airspace. A drastic modernization was the result of a referendum in which the printing of the defense costs was investigated. The main mission of the Swiss Air Force is defending the Swiss airspace against unwanted intruders. A few other tasks of the air force, are; guarding the sovereignty of airspace by patrols, the ability to conduct airlift operations and finally gathering Intel for the political and military leadership of the air force. Over the years, the Swiss Air Force was a traditionally air force based on a militia structure. This organizational structure included the pilots and an inventory of over 450 aircraft and helicopters. The Swiss Air Force was separated from the Swiss Army in 1966. The air force has shrunk to a smaller air force of about 230 aircraft and helicopters. The air force is committed at this time to continue the shrink in terms of personnel by fewer reservists for common tasks. The Swiss Air Force counts nowadays over 1,600 professional soldiers and about 20,000 reservists. The primary air defense fleet currently consists of 33x F-18 Hornett fighters and 54x F-5 Tiger fighter aircraft. The Swiss Air Force had 110 F-5 Tigers in the past. These fighters were purchased between 1978 and 1985. All pilots of the F-18s are professional pilots who are full time pilot within the Air Force. The pilots, who fly the F-5, are all reservists. During certain periods, the reserve pilots are assigned to the squadrons on which they must fulfill their operational life training.

The aircraft of the Swiss Air Force are only stand-by on weekdays during business hours. The costs for a complete Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) stand-by status are much too high for the Swiss budget. It is for the Swiss Air Force a mission impossible to have a 24/7 stand-by service. A lack of budget and the lack of an amount of professional pilots is the main reason for this. This does not apply to the radar stations which monitor the Swiss air space from the ground. These installations are manned 24 hours a day. A major problem of defending the Swiss airspace is the small size of the country. The country has only a size of 348 km. It is possible to fly from one side to the other side of the country within 20 minutes with a commercial aircraft. This distance is much shorter with military aircraft such as the F-18 or F-5. The prevention of noise over this small country with this large amount of aircraft has always been an important issue in Switzerland. The Swiss Air Force will practice as much as possible in other NATO countries to reduce the noise in Switzerland. The Swiss aircraft are exercising regularly with colleagues from Belgium, Germany and France to export the sound to areas which are much larger. The Swiss Air Force is an air force of compromises due to this alternative approach. The Swiss Air Force is able to perform its tasks properly in this versatile small country.




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