The Swiss army's growing problem with civilian service

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The Swiss army's growing problem with civilian service
Photo: Swiss Federal Department of Defence

With the Swiss army struggling to attract and hold onto recruits, the defence department wants to make civilian service less attractive. Here are the details.


What does Switzerland's compulsory military service entail?

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

Why does the Swiss army want to reduce the number of people doing civilian service?

The army says it needs 18,000 recruits a year to be sustainable. In recent years, however, this number has not always been achieved.

Meanwhile, the number of people choosing to carry out the alternative civilian service option has continued to rise – from 4,670 in 2011 to 6,785 in 2017. The number fell slightly to 6,205 in 2018 but the government believes that the trend is still upward.

The army is also particularly concerned about the number of people who choose to move across to civilian service after completing basic military training (recruit school).

In addition, the number of officers and non-commissioned officers who are moving across to civilian service is also a problem.

In short, the army is struggling to both attract and hold onto people.

What is the civilian service option?

Civilian service is an alternative to compulsory military service. According to the Swiss government, “anyone who is liable to perform military service and has a conflict of conscience can apply to perform civilian service".

What are the advantages of civilian service?

For anyone who has ideological objections to undertaking Switzerland’s compulsory military service, civilian service obviously makes sense.

There is also a growing feeling that carrying out civilian service can bring about professional benefits by allowing people to acquire new skills and experience.

Many civilian service activities have a focus on health, social welfare and environmental work. For an increasing number of young people, engaging in this type of work is more meaningful than undertaking compulsory military service.

What are the disadvantages?

Switzerland’s civilian service is generally one and half times longer than compulsory military service, although it is shorter for officers and non-commissioned officers (1.1 times longer).

How does the Swiss army want to make civilian service less attractive?

The Swiss government has suggested eight measures, which have now been put before the parliament. These include scrapping overseas civilian service posting (there were around 80 such places in 2018), extending the duration of civilian service for officers and non-commissioned officers who elect to move across to this option, and a reduction in the types of civilian service available.

What has the reaction been to the government's plans?

The Greens and the Socialist Party have condemned the plans, with the Greens saying that unless the measures proposed by the government are watered down, they will back a referendum proposed by the civilian service lobby group Civiva which aims to oppose the new measures.

But Werner Salzmann with the conservative Swiss People’s Party said the measures do not go far enough and civilian service is still too attractive.


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