Military For Members

EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?
Swiss army has several purposes, both military and civilian. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Given that Switzerland has not fought in any wars since the mid-19th century, the question about why the neutral country needs an active military is a legitimate one.


The question of neutrality comes up from time to time but has been the subject of many more (often heated) debates since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and many in Switzerland have pushed for a closer cooperation with NATO. 

Such a prospect has prompted the sovereigntist organisation Pro Schweiz to collect more than enough signatures in March 2024 to launch a vote aimed at better anchoring Swiss neutrality in the country's constitution.

They want to restrict non-military measures such as sanctions, to prevent any closer ties with NATO and to rule out any military alliance except if attacked.

READ ALSO: Swiss move towards vote on reinforcing neutrality

It is true that the Swiss have not been engaged in any active international conflicts for centuries.

The last armed conflict that Switzerland was involved in was a short civil war in 1847.

Since then, while Swiss troops were mobilised — and ready to fight — in both World Wars, they did not engage in any combat (though the military did, on at least three occasions, ’invade’ Liechtenstein).

Yet, despite its longstanding tradition of neutrality and non-involvement in wars, every Swiss man is required to serve in the military from the age of 18 to 30.

This also includes naturalised citizens.

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?


The Swiss take this obligation very seriously, considering it their patriotic and civic duty.

Fortunately, Switzerland’s armed forces have never been tested in battle since the 19th century.

During WWII, the country was ready for combat, with every soldier armed and able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point at a moment’s notice.

Also, the military reportedly booby-trapped all tunnels, bridges and viaducts, and were ready to detonate the explosives if Germany dared to invade.

So does the army serve any real purpose?

The Swiss refer to their brand of sovereignty as “armed neutrality”, which means that while their army can’t fight in wars outside their own territory, it must defend the country against aggression within its own borders.

Therefore, the goal of the standing military is to ensure internal security — but not only. As the recent history has shown, the army’s role is not just a purely military one, but can extend into the civilian realm as well.

During the height of Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the army was deployed to support the healthcare system by setting up logistics, supplying medical material, transporting patients, and in other roles.

According to the Defence Ministry, one of the basic missions of the Swiss armed forces “is to support the civilian authorities, when their resources are no longer sufficient”.

Aside from helping out with health crises, as was the case with Covid, the military can also be deployed to “ward off severe threats", as well as "master other exceptional situations, in particular in the event of disasters".

And while Swiss troops can’t go around invading other countries, they can be involved in disaster relief efforts abroad.

“The objective of humanitarian aid support is primarily to save lives and to ensure the survival of people at risk, and may include rebuilding vital infrastructure», Defence Ministry said.


Could the army defend the country against invasion?

This is purely theoretical, of course, as Switzerland has no such prior experience. The country didn’t even fight back when Napoleon came to call in 1798.

There is no way to know for sure whether the current equipment and 147,510 troops (including 102,715 rank and file soldiers) could defend Switzerland from attack.

However, the question of the country’s defence capabilities is a valid one amid rising tensions across Europe.

It is even more pertinent as in 2010, Switzerland scrapped much of its military equipment when it dramatically downsized the armed forces, along with military spending — a trend that had continued in following years.

Even private homes with obligatory fallout shelters to be used in case of an attack were gradually phased out in favour of communal facilities.

Not surprisingly, a number of MPs have been calling for better preparedness, including re-equipping of ground troops and the renewal of the air force — the latter of which has been done with the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from the US to replace the  country’s current ageing fleet.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?


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