Switzerland And Mountain Warfare: A History Of Specific Skills – OpEd


As the West rediscovers the art of mountain warfare, in modern war theatres, experts are once again examining the military of Western Europe, where the art of mountain combat was patiently studied and built, over the years. And, in the centre of Europe, quietly lies perhaps the world champion of this specific art: Switzerland. In its long and spotless history of defensive capabilities, warring nations can find many lessons, still very much valid today.  

Mountain warfare is not regular warfare 

In many ways, the job of soldiers is very different from that of mountain soldiering – to the point that many from mountain units consider themselves mountaineers first, and soldiers second. Of course, it’s still a game of carrying heavy rucksacks and warding off enemies, but the environments are so vastly different that it’s only a small stretch to call them two different jobs. Movements are slower, distances are skewed, daylight behaves entirely differently, bullets travel further in the thin air, and tracks can simply not be concealed in the snow. These are just a handful of parameters which make mountain warfare so specific. And, as the environment changes, so must the equipment deployed in it.

The US Army headquarters doctrine stipulates that “Ground movement of field artillery is often limited to traveling on the existing road and trail networks and positioning in their vicinity. Towed field artillery may require forward displacement of gun sections by helicopter to provide forward troops the necessary support“, highlighting how distances and movement must be apprehended in a completely different manner, when operating on mountainous terrain such as Switzerland.

Because mobility and adaptation to the terrain is so crucial, the Swiss train their soldiers accordingly and make sure their equipment is flexible and adaptable to any given tactical situation. In any given tactical scenario, the Swiss plan to count on mobility and terrain knowledge to harass enemy forces relentlessly and constantly reposition their forces to keep the defensive initiative. 

The classic mistake of excessive high tech. 

US Army commanders committed this mistake – or rather realized they committed it – in Afghanistan, when their enormous, bulky, super-sophisticated and expensive Abrams tank revealed itself nearly useless, on the mountainous battlefield.  Alas, US self-propelled howitzers (Paladin)  were quite similar in their design : sophisticated, slow, expensive and bulky. As a result, heavy firepower was easily identified and avoided by insurgent forces, and slow or impossible to displace and redeploy according to enemy movements.  

The Turkish Army ran into a similar problem facing the rugged and basic Kurd army. Turkey purchased the German Leopard 2 tank, known as one of the most technologically advanced main battle tanks in the world, in 2005. The Leo 2 has met substantial success, commercially speaking, but had barely been battle-proven until now, and the test of fire did not go well for the super-tank. Because the design made sense in the lab, buyers assumed the tank would be relevant in the battlefield – but crafty and nimble insurgent units quickly overcame the bulky and inadequate beast on the battlefield, causing huge embarrassment in Berlin. 

The Swiss, as keen military observers, understand that predicting the next war is an impossible task. Going for military high-tech works only if the next enemy is of the same nature: a battle of research laboratories will then occur. Simpler equipment, on the other hand, will remain relevant, whichever the future enemy. 

Excessive sophistication exposes to breakdowns and reduces the number of units 

It’s tempting for any country with solid economies to buy the newest gimmick from the arms industry, but three major problems can arise from such a mistake, and the Swiss know how to avoid them.  The first comes from the under-optimization of military budgets: with ultra-high-tech equipment, the price tag for each item skyrockets. This means, for an equal budget, a lower number of units. The Swiss know that swarming the enemy from as many directions as possible is a major advantage in battle. So, here again, simpler is better, and more numerous. The second problem is the lack of robustness in new and very sophisticated systems.

The French discovered, at their expense in the 1970s, that the amphibious capability of their new VAB infantry vehicles only led to vehicle breakdowns, and rapidly ordered troops not to attempt crossing rivers, and revert to the traditional method of bridging. This led France’s Nexter to build their new Caesar artillery system on the basis of tried-and-true ruggedness and reliability – which eventually led to excellent results in deployments.

Defence expert Joe Gould writes: “Some of the Army’s artillery modernization efforts have, well, misfires: The $11 billion Crusader self-propelled artillery system was canceled in 2002 largely due to its excessive weight and cost; and the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon was part of the canceled Future Combat System program.”

Equipment which was designed using the opposite philosophy of ruggedness and reliability, at the expense of excessive sophistication, has taken the hearts of minds of many military observers. The French Caesar howitzer, which was deployed in Mali and Iraq, has been hailed as an exceptional piece of equipment. It provides performance equal to its American counterpart, and is far easier to relocate, deploy and maintain. Last but not least, its simple yet effective design makes it cheaper to produce, which means armies can buy more units with the same budget. 

For this reason, the Swiss forces tend to opt for tried-and-true equipment, and sacrifice sophistication in favour of effectiveness. General Walter Gerhard is the artillery project leader for Switzerland’s procurement agency, named Armassuise, and is consulting with allied counterparts to acquire as much insight into future decision-making as possible, regarding equipment. The 4.5 billion euros spent in 2021 for Swiss defence will therefore yield a higher number of units and materialize the swarming strategy which has been at the heart of the Swiss doctrine for centuries. 

Switzerland has found the right fulcrum for its defensive forces, with a robust equilibrium between technical sophistication and robust simplicity. Despite a very reasonable defence budget, given its size, the Swiss have found the way to squeeze every last drop of military potential out of the allocated resources. Still, to this day, the Swiss Army’s capacity to move quickly through the rugged terrain and hit hard any intruder, makes every nation in the world exclude the central European country from the list of possible targets. 

*Sophia Wright holds a degree in political economy, law and politics. She has worked as an analyst in Europe for various NGOs, as well as for European institutions. She is also a mother, and what she has seen of macroeconomic and macro-political developments motivates her to alert the younger generation to the dangers of a host of measures in the pipeline.

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