Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Swiss Army Adapts to Changing Times

Massive mountain fortresses are considered obsolete, at least for now. Force is shrinking and modernizing.

October 20, 2002|Clare Nullis | Associated Press Writer

ST. MAURICE, Switzerland — High on the mountainside, hidden behind green foliage and an unobtrusive door, lies a fascinating glimpse into the Swiss army's past secrets and its future face.

It's based on an old Swiss military doctrine: In time of war, head for the hills.

It is here that Switzerland's engineering wizardry and a stubborn survival instinct combined to produce Dailly fortress -- one of its biggest underground defense facilities, with artillery emplacements, troop quarters, and even hospital and bakery facilities, all linked by a labyrinth of tunnels stretching for dozens of miles.

Now it lies silent and empty as the army moves to modernize itself to meet 21st-century threats.

Landlocked Switzerland hasn't been invaded for 204 years and has always relied on its mountains as the backbone of its defense. Fearing that Hitler and Mussolini wanted to carve up the country, Switzerland built its network of 20,000 Alpine hide-outs and fortified bunkers between 1940 and 1943 and continued to modernize it until well into the 1970s.

The two fascist leaders stayed away, although critics say Switzerland's service as banker and supplier to the Nazi war machine also helped.

For decades, Dailly was the jewel in the crown of the Alpine Redoubt.

"The fortress used to be classed as top secret and was meant to block access to potential enemies," defense minister Samuel Schmid explained to a group of foreign journalists allowed a rare tour of the fort.

"But history is in constant movement, like Swiss watches. Today, conditions are changing and our army has to adapt." As he spoke, a batch of young recruits practiced on a target range beside a herd of peacefully grazing cows.

Risk analysis by the military says the biggest threat to Switzerland is conflicts beyond Europe and their attendant economic disruption. Next come natural catastrophes, conflicts within Europe and terrorism. A direct military attack on Switzerland comes last.

So Schmid has launched what he describes as the most sweeping reforms since the modern Swiss confederation and its militia army were established 154 years ago.

The central plank of the program is to cut the number of men in active service and the reserves from 350,000 to 220,000 by lengthening basic military training from 17 to 21 weeks and limiting reserve duty to men under 30 instead of 40.

Thus, goes the reasoning, recruits will complete active duty at a relatively young age and come away with the skills to make them Value-Added Citizens, in the words of armed forces commander Jacques Dousse.

The defense ministry also wants salaried instructors instead of amateurs, but insists that this doesn't mean the army is going professional.

"The militia army is so anchored in the Swiss collective mentality that I don't think Switzerland would be able to enter fully the professional era," Dousse said.

He also doubts that enough Swiss men would forgo high salaries in business to sign up to defend their country.

The reforms are unlikely to cut the $2.9-billion defense budget because Schmid wants to spend more on sophisticated weapons and communications.

A prominent victim of the high-tech push is Switzerland's fabled bicycle brigade, which will be disbanded, much to the regret of traditionalists who say the cycling troops are fast, efficient and cheap.

But there are no plans to tamper with the militia tradition that allows all men to keep their service weapon in a closet at home.

Schmid estimates that about 500,000 army-issue weapons are in private hands and that up to 40% of reservists choose to keep their weapons upon retirement from active duty.

"And we don't want to change that," he said, mindful of the political clout of the half-million-strong rifle association, Switzerland's biggest professional sporting organization.

So strong is the defense mentality that all modern Swiss apartment buildings and houses have fallout shelters -- a regulation that was widely ridiculed until the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the anthrax scare.

But only now, as it comes to be seen as obsolete, is the scope and sophistication of the military's defense network coming to light. With fort entrances carefully hidden by trees or rustic chalets, most Swiss were unaware they were there.

Nothing on the hairpin bends on the narrow road up from St. Maurice suggests the existence of the mighty Dailly fort and its web of immaculately preserved tunnels and caverns.

A 55-year-old cable car, which transported soldiers and supplies through the heart of the mountain, takes the visitor on a stomach-churning, 1,180-foot climb to a chamber that served as the ammunition production line for the army's fearsome 150-mm cannon. Nearby is a vast barracks that could sleep more than 600 soldiers.

Dailly was constructed to help defend St. Maurice, regarded as the doorway from the southern Valais mountains to Switzerland's productive plains. The two other main fortresses were on the central St. Gotthard Pass and Sargans, in the east.

Like most other Swiss forts, it was closed as a result of army reforms in 1995 that left just 5,000 smaller mountain hide-outs with more sophisticated equipment in use.

There are moves to turn some decommissioned facilities into tourist attractions, even hotels. But the fate of Dailly remains unclear because of its huge size and maintenance costs.

"Most of the fortresses are closed now," said Col. Alexandre Morrisod, who used to command Dailly. "But history is cyclical and maybe one day they will become important again."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|