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Armed Neutrality: Guns of the Swiss Special Forces

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘One for all, all for one.’)” — Motto of the Swiss Confederation. (This was also the popular motto of The Three Musketeers in the 1844 novel by French author Alexandre Dumas.)

Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a small, landlocked country about 28-percent larger than Maryland, our ninth-smallest state. It’s a federal republic, a direct democracy inspired by the American example, surrounded by France to the west, Germany to the north, Italy to the south, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. With the Jura Mountains in the northern section and the towering, majestic Alps (60 percent of the nation) in the south, most of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people (including 2.2 million resident foreigners) resides on the Swiss Plateau, comprising only 30 percent of the nation’s landmass. The primary, national languages are German, French, and Italian, although many Swiss residents also speak some English.

It’s the wealthiest country in Europe, and possibly in the world, in nominal wealth per adult ($87k per year), with the most-competitive and innovative economy in the world, but also has some of the highest costs of living. Since the 16th century, Switzerland has maintained a strong policy of armed neutrality, and has not fought in any international wars since 1815, but it does take part in various, international, peacekeeping missions.

It is not a member of the NATO alliance or the European Union (EU), and did not even join the United Nations until 2002. There remains a strong, popular sentiment against EU membership, due to a fierce sense of independence and neutrality. Switzerland was not invaded in either World War One or World War Two, partly because of its rugged terrain, military deterrence, and some concessions to Nazi Germany, which delayed a planned invasion until it was too late to succeed.

Swiss military strategy then changed from one of static defense at the borders, to a war of long-term attrition, wearing any potential invader down as the Swiss troops gradually withdraw to tens of thousands (about 26k) of fortified, well-stocked positions high in the Alps, with a huge variety of concealed cannon or machine gun positions in mountain bunkers, and concealed in fake barns, houses, or sheds.

The Swiss armed forces consist of approximately 105,000 active-duty personnel (just over one percent of the total population), of which about 100,000 (95-percent) are very young, unseasoned conscripts, ages 18 to 20, with 77,000 reservists, and another 360,000 armed, militia-based personnel who can be mobilized within 24 hours. The structure of the Swiss militia system mandates that the soldiers keep their army equipment, including all assigned weapons, at home, a controversial practice for some organizations, with the result that about 650,000 assault rifles are in Swiss homes, although some may now be stored in armories. In addition, gun politics in Switzerland are such that as many as 3.5 million guns are in the hands of civilians, so roughly 40 percent of the overall population is armed.

At the very tip of the spear of the Swiss armed forces is the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), or Special Forces Command, founded in 2012, a formation of approximately 3,000 soldiers, headquartered at Monteceneri, in the far south, near the Italian border. They specialize in guerilla warfare, urban warfare, counterterrorist (CT) operations, commando tactics, sniper missions, hand-to-hand combat, and other special operations missions.

The KSK is comprised of a Special Forces Command Staff Battalion, and Special Forces Training Center in nearby Isone, three miles to the northeast, Grenadier Battalions 20 and 30 (militia units) at Isone, the Military Police Special Detachment at Worblaufen/Ittigen, near the capital city of Bern, Parachute Reconnaissance Company 17 (FSK 17, in German, an Air Force militia unit,) at Isone, and most-importantly, Army Reconnaissance Detachment 10 (AAD 10, in German), a professional unit, at Monteceneri.

Swiss KSK troops typically wear the newer, Multiumfeld-Tarnmuster 16 (“Multi-Environment, Camouflage Pattern 2016”) woodland-camo pattern, incorporating chocolate brown, moss green, and light brown, on a tan or khaki background. The entire, Swiss armed forces are slated to transition to this effective pattern by 2022. While the regular infantry wears green berets, KSK members wear tan berets, inspired by the elite, British Special Air Service (SAS.)

These special operations units are supported by the Swiss Air Force’s 15 green-camouflaged, Pilatus PC-6/B1-H2 Turbo-Porter light utility aircraft (with short-takeoff-and-landing, or STOL, capability) at Emmen Air Base, 24 Eurocopter AS532UL Cougar transport helicopters, and 18 Eurocopter EC635P2+ transport helicopters at Alpnach, Dübendorf, and Payerne Air Bases. The Swiss Air Force also recently ordered three dozen Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealth aircraft as their future fighters.

Grenadier Battalions 20 and 30 are very well-trained (over a period of 23 weeks), all-volunteer, mechanized-infantry units, each subdivided into three assault companies and a reconnaissance company. The grenadiers are essentially shock troops trained in guerilla tactics, mountain warfare, urban combat, and survival techniques, who support the more-specialized missions of AAD 10 and FSK 17, in a role similar to U.S. Army Rangers supporting Delta Force raids. Their motto, like that of the U.S. Marines, is “Semper Fidelis” (“Always faithful.”)

The Military Police Special Detachment is a professional, active-duty unit, but it deals primarily with domestic terrorism issues, more like an elite, SWAT team than an actual, military special operations force, and it is not collocated near the other KSK units.

Next, Parachute Reconnaissance Company 17 (FSK 17), technically part of the Swiss Air Force on a militia basis, is one of the two principal, Special Forces units of the KSK, tasked with long-range reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, and direct action, as required. Annually, about 600 candidates apply for the unit, but only half make it to the screening process, and of those, only 90 will enroll in parachute courses.

In the end, just 20 will pass the entire process, to begin actual, military training with the unit. The training process lasts from 10 to 14 months, including weapons training, physical fitness training, and computer-aided, intelligence collection. The unit is divided into only six parachute reconnaissance patrols, so it remains very small in manpower. They wear black, leather jump boots, and utilize the American-made, T-10C/D parachute for static-line operations, and the MT-1X or later models for freefall operations.

Switzerland’s most-elite, Special Forces unit, however, is Army Reconnaissance Detachment 10 (AAD 10). Formed in 2003, but not going public until 2007, and presently consisting of just 40 professional, active-duty troops (instead of the initially-planned 90 troops), it is tasked primarily with counterterrorism, special reconnaissance, and direct action. AAD 10 is closely patterned after the British SAS counterterrorism unit, with instructors from the SAS, U.S. Army Special Forces, and U.S. Navy SEAL teams.

Most AAD 10 applicants come from the other KSK units, and they receive more than 350 applications per year, but usually, only about seven men will make it all the way through the arduous, three-week, selection process. They average more than 30 years of age, and are expected to have a good command of at least two Swiss languages (usually German and French), plus a good command of English, a third language, in order to be able to communicate with U.S. and British instructors, and various NATO nations.

There’s a 12-month, qualification process for those selected, covering basic skills in marksmanship, weapons-handling techniques, hand-to-hand combat, close-quarters battle, demolitions, leadership skills, combat survival, infiltration techniques, special reconnaissance, and direct action.

After becoming full-fledged, AAD 10 members at the end of this first year, they then receive advanced training in mountain warfare, freefall parachuting, combat diving, and other special skills. Further advanced-skill courses include a team leader course, a weapons specialist course, a demolition and breaching course, a sniper and surveillance course, a medic course, and a communications specialist course.

In addition to their Multiumfeld-Tarnmuster 16 camouflaged uniforms and tan berets, AAD 10 soldiers typically wear Mammut (Swiss-made) Gore-Tex-lined, brown hiking boots. A few members have also been photographed wearing Crye Precision MultiCam uniforms on recent exercises.

Here are most of the weapons and equipment used by Swiss KSK units:

Assault rifles: Their primary firearm is the Sturmgewehr07 (the Swiss Arms AG, formerly SIG, SG 553-1 LB [Long-Barrel, 13.7 inches] Commando assault carbine in 5.56mm, in OD green, with quick-change, conversion kits to employ either a 10.7-inch or 8.9-inch barrel (on the SG553-1 SB [Short-Barrel] model.) Various types of optics may be attached, and B&T Rotex-V suppressors (Swiss-made) are often employed. The rest of the Swiss Army carries Sturmgewehr 90 (Swiss Arms SG550), with a long, 20.8-inch barrel.

Pistols: Since 2012, all KSK members have carried the Glock-17 Gen. 4 service pistol in 9x19mm, and the Glock-26 Gen. 4 in 9x19mm for off-duty or concealed-carry operations. Most other Swiss soldiers use the Pistole 75 (SIG P220) in 9mm.

Submachine guns: AAD 10 uses the high-quality, suppressed, H&K MP5SD3 weapon in 9mm.

Designated marksman rifles (DMRs): The semi-automatic SIG 716 with 16-inch barrel in 7.62mm NATO, with 20-round, Stoner SR-25-pattern magazine, is the KSK’s standard DMR.

Sniper rifles: The only two identified, sniper weapons are the Scharfschützengewehr 04 (Sako TRG-42 in .338 Lapua Magnum, with 196 acquired), and the Präzisionsgewehr 04 (PGM Précision [French-made] Hécate II sniper rifle in .50 BMG, with 20 acquired.) Hécate was the ancient, Greek goddess of night, magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and sorcery.

Machine guns: KSK uses the MG 51 medium machine gun in 7.5x55mm Swiss, and the Browning M2HB heavy machine gun in .50 BMG, mostly mounted on their Serval AGF combat vehicles.

Light machine guns: The only light machine gun employed is the LMG 05 (FN Minimi) in 5.56mm NATO.

Combat knives: The only observed, fighting knife is the Extrema Ratio (Italian-manufactured) Fulcrum bayonet in OD green, with 7.1-inch blade, or sometimes the older, Victorinox M1990 bayonet, with 7-inch blade. A few examples of the long-and-deadly, SIG M1957 commando dagger with 9.45-inch blade may still be available, but have not been seen in recent photographs.

Other knives: Most Swiss soldiers, including KSK members, are issued the Victorinox Soldatenmesser 08 (“Soldiers’ Knife 2008”) in OD green and black, with stainless-steel blades. There’s also an optional, “Black Ice” version available, with camouflaged grips and blackened, stainless-steel blades, but these military versions of the world-famous, Swiss Army Knife are considered to be multitools, not weapons, by the Swiss Army. There was also a black-handled, Victorinox Swiss Army Parachutist Knife, made until 2008, and designed to be opened with one hand.

Combat Vehicles: The Mercedes Benz/Rheinmetall Light Infantry Vehicle for Special Operations, or LIV (SO), is derived from the Mercedes G270 CDI Wolf, 4x4 vehicle, and is alternately known as the Serval (a wild cat native to Africa), Wolf, or AGF (the German abbreviation for “Reconnaissance and Combat Vehicle,” in Switzerland.) It’s lightly armored, and offers high mobility and high firepower, with a five-cylinder, diesel engine producing 156 horsepower, and capable of speeds up to 75 miles per hour. The German KSK has operated 21 of them since 2004, and the Swiss KSK received an unspecified number in OD green in 2007. They are each armed with one MG 51 medium machine gun in front of the passenger seat, and one M2HB heavy machine gun in the back, and can hold four men inside.

Wristwatches: Victorinox offers a fine, Swiss Army Men’s Black Nylon Original (XL249087) quartz-analog wristwatch to the armed forces for $156, or an optional, Swiss Army Classic Officer’s Quartz Steel Men’s Watch (241592) in stainless steel for $318. And for those Swiss officers with larger bank accounts, there is the unique, Swiss Military Hawk Chronograph Olive Dial Men’s Watch (No. 27321) for a mere $1,250. None of these are mandatory, or standard-issue, however, they are available to Swiss service members.

B&T firearms: Swiss KSK commandos also have access to the high-precision, Swiss-manufactured firearms by B&T (Brügger and Thomet), based in Thun, Switzerland. Of particular interest to the Swiss armed forces are the integrally-suppressed, Station Six-9 pistol, the quietest 9mm pistol available, the MP9-Nsubmachine gun (the Mp. 14 personal defense weapon, in Swiss Army service), with an available suppressor, the APC9 submachine gun (the APC9K is now used by U.S. Army personal-security details) in 9mm, APC556 assault carbine with 8.7-inch PDW (as used by French Special Forces helicopter pilots), 10.4-inch compact, or 12.1-inch standard barrels in 5.56mm, APR308 or APR338 sniper rifles in 7.62mm NATO or .338 Lapua Magnum, including suppressed versions, and the SPR300 suppressed, precision, sniper rifle in .300 BLK, one of the quietest rifles in the world. B&T also produces a full line of top-quality suppressors in various rifle and pistol calibers, and all Heckler and Koch (German-made) suppressed weapons currently incorporate B&T suppressors, due to the Swiss company’s superb reputation.

Swiss Special Forces do have two notable weaknesses, however. First, they have no recent, combat experience to draw upon and learn from, but this is partially offset by their close interaction with U.S. and British special operations units that do have the requisite, combat experience, so critical lessons are still being passed on.

But secondly, Switzerland is a very small country, lacking the resources to strategically transport AAD 10 operators to various locations around the world, and lacking in overall, military support for its KSK units, such as airlift and close air support, when required. Many ultra-liberal, Swiss politicians also think that AAD 10 is “dangerous,” and that its mere existence threatens the nation’s peaceful, neutrality policy, so governmental support is also marginal and strained, arguably costing $16 million per year, just for AAD 10’s training, exercises, and equipment requirements, for only 40 men.

The Scandinavian countries, and Ireland, however, have been engaged in talks with Switzerland to encourage the Swiss to move away from their confining, “neutrality-bubble,” and become a valuable, contributing, Western nation in any future wars. The Swiss KSK is certainly well-trained, well-equipped, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, and able to hold its own compared to many of its finest, European counterparts, but improvements are still needed in the areas of political will and military support, in order for the top-notch KSK to be able to operate on foreign soil in crisis or wartime situations.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (and traveled to Switzerland) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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