A group of young arabs smoke marijuana on the steps while a gaggle of hippies has their confab in a sharing circle on the other side of the station. Neon blue lights streak across the concrete slabs in front of the Lausanne-Flor metro station where a family pushes a stroller between the two groups. It appears to be a local man with his parents and Asian wife.
Lausanne is primarily a college town located about an hour by train from Geneva, Switzerland. The city mixes the traditional architecture of the old city almost seamlessly with the modern glass and metal of bridges and elevators. With the highest density of trains to people anywhere in the world, public transportation is always on time—putting the subways of New York City to shame.
Interrupting the pedestrians at Lausanne-Flor is a group of Swiss soldiers. Wearing their woodland camouflage uniforms and berets, they shout at each other in French, hurrying to buy a few beers in plastic cups for the trip to their next destination before the metro arrives. Nobody pays them much mind, though. They are not rude or rowdy, just doing the things that soldiers do the world over. Besides, they are a part of a military tradition stretching back hundreds of years.
Unlike America, it is not uncommon to see Switzerland’s citizen-soldiers walking the streets in uniform. They keep their Army-issued SIG 550 rifle in their bedrooms at home, in the trunks of their cars, and carry them on the metro on the way to complete their required military service. None of this is astounding or even interesting to the Swiss people.
The soldiers carefully balance their cups of beer so as to not spill any as they rush towards the metro station and dash down the stairs.
* * *
After enjoying a few beers myself, I head back to the apartment of a Swiss militia member who is putting me up for a few days. He isn’t home, as he is bouncing between his two jobs: project manager for Switzerland’s largest newspaper and magazine company, and infantry officer. Diallo has to complete his mandatory service in addition to working his regular job in order to make ends meet.
Waking up early the next morning, I jump on the train to the Swiss capital of Bern to explore some museums, then head back to Lausanne to meet another Swiss officer. Louis has worked as a recon officer for an infantry unit and has been overseas a few times on the only deployment option anywhere for Swiss soldiers: the Partnership for Peace (PFP) in Kosovo, which exists under the auspices of NATO. Louis hooks me up with some range time with the SIG firearms that the Swiss military uses.
The SIG 550 is the primary rifle used in the Swiss military. As we field-stripped the gun, I remarked to Louis that, internally, it has a lot in common with the AK-47. He nods his head, “Yes, it is like an AK, but made by Rolex!” He isn’t kidding, either. Although it came into service in the Swiss military over 25 years ago, the rifle more than serves its purpose. Utilizing a gas tappet system, the SIG 550 delivers better accuracy than the M16 variants in service with the U.S. military, while experiencing fewer malfunctions. The only drawback is the rifle’s weight. At nine pounds, it is several pounds heavier than the M4, despite firing the same NATO standard 5.56mm round.
Most of the Swiss soldiers I met would prefer to carry the short-barrel SIG 553—currently used by Swiss Special Operations units such as DRA-10—instead of the 550, due to both the length and weight of their issued weapon.
“How do you like it?” Louis asks after I blast through several magazines on the flat range.
“I love it,” I replied.
Whatever its flaws, after 25 years, the SIG 550 still gets the job done.
Like Diallo, Louis is a citizen-soldier in the militia. Normally, he can be found working on high-tension lines around Switzerland. Like many Swiss soldiers I met, he wishes that he could devote more time to his military service, but in a country where everyone is essentially a reservist, this isn’t easy. One of the few options to people like Louis is to apply for DRA-10, but even then, deployment options are extremely few and far between.
* * *
The fun and games come to an end the next day as I come back from lunch and link up with Diallo and my friend Quentin—the one who invited me out to Switzerland in the first place. Quentin is a medic in the military, and recently graduated from college with an IT degree. He’s already secured a job working for a Swiss bank.
The reason for my visit is to participate in a Swiss militia exercise hosted by Asso Sion, the Association of Sion. First, to be clear, the militia in Switzerland is sort of like the Army Reserves in the United States. These are the citizen-soldiers who make up the bulk of the Swiss military. The only full-time professional soldiers who are charged with actual combat operations are fighter pilots, members of compagnie d’éclaireurs parachutistes (a freefall-qualified, long-range recon unit), and Switzerland’s military counter-terrorist unit, DRA-10. Artillery, tanks, logistics, intelligence, infantry, and virtually every other military function falls under the purview of the militia.
Asso Sion is one of many militia associations. Each focuses on a different aspect of military training. One association is exclusively for training on marksmanship, another is for truck drivers to cruise around in military vehicles. Asso Sion focuses on infantry and unconventional warfare tasks such as defending in place, direct action, and sabotage operations. According to the NCOs, because the militia is part time, many Swiss troops don’t get enough training on actual combat tasks. So they created these private associations.
Like many other things about the Swiss military, the Asso is very unique, with no equivalent in the United States. Technically, it is not a part of the military at all, but rather it is privately run. Soldiers pay about 50 dollars a year to be a part of the Asso and take part in the voluntary training independent of their required military service. The Asso is also given access to military hardware and logistics. If requested, the Asso can draw out troop transport trucks, weapons, ammunition, and even tanks.
Kitted up, Diallo, Quentin, and I walk through the streets of Lausanne to the train station and hop a ride out to the shooting range where Asso Sion will meet at five in the morning. Seeing troops kitted out like they are actually going to war draws a bit of attention from the locals, but no one really raises an eyebrow at us. When not training, Swiss soldiers are required to remove the bolt from their rifles, but other than that, they travel on public transportation to and from training with all their weapons and kit.
We slept out at the range that night for our early wake-up call as other members of Asso Sion began to arrive. The NCO in charge introduced himself to me in between inspecting equipment layouts and getting everyone organized. Francois is a 45-year-old sergeant major in the Military Police who has previously been deployed to Kosovo with the PFP. He gave me a quick in-brief to the exercise and welcomed me to the team. I found Francois to be professional and competent, quickly running through the numbers required to have men, weapons, and equipment ready for training.
We were soon issued additional kit to take with us, including blank ammunition, training grenades, PVS-7 night-vision goggles, and binoculars. Normally, the Swiss draw out encrypted radio systems for these training missions, but in this case we simply used cell phones to communicate. With our newly issued items, we re-packed our rucks and were then issued a laser training system similar to the MILES system the U.S. Army uses.
The Swiss SimFass system includes a laser module which attaches over the barrel and fires a laser each time a blank round is fired. The system also includes a vest and helmet cover with sensors on it to pick up when a soldier is hit by an “enemy” laser beam. I was never a big fan of the MILES system, but as it turned out, the SimFass system performed as advertised—even though the units we were issued were over 20 years old. Chalk it up to Swiss engineering.
The newer SimFass system actually includes laser modules for rocket launchers, grenades, and vehicles. There are also laser sensors on the buildings in their MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) city, which we were to train in later that day. Those modules can detect which rooms on a building have been “destroyed” when a tank fires on them.
After loading up our blank ammunition, testing the SimFass systems we were issued, and applying face camouflage, we were briefed on the mission and given the map coordinates we needed. We were to move about 18 kilometers on foot to make our infiltration into the MOUT city where we would execute a hostage-rescue mission.
In total, there were about 40 participants in the exercise, most of them OPFOR, and a few support personnel such as truck drivers. The rest of us were organized into three four-man commando teams: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Since we were to be deployed by truck in that order, we loaded into the Dura transport vehicle in reverse order: Charlie Team first and Alpha Team last. I was on Alpha Team with Diallo, Quentin, and Francois.
It took about three hours for us to drive from the southern part of Switzerland up to the northern tip of the country which borders France—called Jura—and the military facility called Bure, which includes the MOUT city and a large training area for armored vehicles. However, it should be noted that the entire country of Switzerland is basically a training area for the militia. They patrol through the villages and countryside, and on a few occasions, commando teams have even gotten into running firefights with the OPFOR in populated areas during the dead of night.
As we drove north, we passed through multiple tunnels the Swiss had drilled through the mountains for their highways. Passing from the French to the German-speaking regions of the country, the weather also changed. Quentin quoted something I had once told him, “If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training!” Soon, we were given a one-minute warning prior to reaching our infiltration point. Thankfully, both the rain and the fog had let up by then.
The vehicle slowed down to a few miles-per-hour, and each commando hopped off the back of the truck with his ruck and fled into the tree line to establish a security perimeter. It was here that we learned the colonel running the exercise had actually dropped us off about five kilometers before our planned infiltration point. He felt that we didn’t have enough elevation change in our infiltration route, so he helped us out a little bit with that. We also had an old-school collapsable stretcher to carry with us.
After a quick map check, we rucked up and started on our way…uphill.
Now, if this was one of those military or survival-themed television shows, I would ham it up for our readers and tell you that we huddled together for warmth at night and that we drank our own urine just to survive. This wasn’t like that. The exercise was physically exhausting, but nothing that an infantryman can’t handle.
We started uphill, and after a while entered a small village that looked like something right off of a postcard. An old woman walking down the street came over to tell one of the militia members how handsome he was. Opinions about the militia vary throughout Switzerland. The French-speaking Swiss are less pro-military than the German-speaking Swiss. However, there is also an urban versus rural divide in Switzerland with urban people less supportive of the military than the rural farmers. There are also young hippies and socialists in Switzerland who don’t like the military because they don’t like “the war”—as if Switzerland’s military is even remotely engaged in a war.
When this subject came up, Quentin scoffed. “We haven’t hurt anyone in 200 years,” he said, referring to the Swiss Army.