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Swiss Military Cost-Effectiveness in the Cold-War: Insights for Land Capability

Tanks on parade

Army’s vision of Accelerated Warfare heralds changes in war and international circumstances and directs members to discuss and debate ideas. Analysis published by ASPI, IFRS and AFA highlights changing geostrategic circumstances and environmental conditions to call for new approaches to defending Australia. Questions of force preparedness and scaling for unforeseen events loom large. Proposed roles for the Army range from securing offshore bases for naval and air forces, through regional constabulary actions to environmental emergency response. Most suggestions see a continued need for powerful, modern armoured land forces, in the mix however is a consistent assumption that this must be delivered by a mostly full-time force. While this may reflect political constraints on using part-time forces, it seems to be mostly because ‘regulars’ are considered essential for delivering high-end ground capability. This article suggests reliance on a full-time model to field all its mechanised forces may be limiting Army’s options; assigning well-trained but part-time Brigades to ‘heavy’ war-fighting roles may offer dramatic cost savings and the potential to release regular formations for more likely and agile roles. The evidence that this is feasible is the extraordinary cost effectiveness of the Cold War Swiss army.


The purpose of this article is to prompt discussion about options for scaling and creating mass in the land force by:

  • sketching the Swiss Cold-War force model known as Armee61;
  • demonstrating model cost effectiveness by comparing ‘materiel capability’ and defence budgets in Australia and Switzerland during the Cold War; and
  • highlighting how highly focussed training enables part-time force capability

Supplementing full-time forces with a new part-time model could deliver mass for both military and emergency contingency response, as Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Foster demonstrates in the Australian Army Journal. Using the current Swiss militia army as an example, he demonstrates how highly focussed training allows a part-time force to deliver required capability. Today Switzerland can, within several days, rapidly mobilise around 110,000 troops with 80,000 ‘reserves’, including three mechanised Brigades (with 224 Leopard 2, 200 CV90, 348 M109, 500 Piranha III 8x8, 12 Kodiak AEV etc). This substantial matériel capability is all operated by reserves. Almost all Swiss soldiers are part-timers, qualified during 18 weeks basic training, with competency maintained by several weeks’ compulsory annual refresher training, and an annual 300 metre live qualification with the assault rifle stored at home with their equipment. There are about 4000 professional leaders and key personnel, such as the immediate readiness fighter pilots.

As Lieutenant Colonel Foster argues, a similar scheme of universal service, whether military or civil, could also deliver greater integration, cohesion and crisis resilience across Australia. Professor John Blaxland of the ANU highlights similar benefits for his proposal for an Australian National and Community Service (AUSNACS). However, the focus of this paper is narrower—simply to demonstrate that it is possible to generate substantial capability at modest cost using a part-time force. While the current Swiss military is also cost-effective, it offers a false economic comparison because it benefited from military downsizing from 1995 onwards. This reform cut the army to 1/5 of its original strength, a dramatic change of policy that followed a failed 1994 referendum to disband the military. While the referendum failed it had substantial support; direct democracy in action. A much clearer example of cost effectiveness is provided by the remarkable 650,000 strong Cold War Armee61, which had no professional soldiers—even fighter pilots were militia. It illustrates how a low-cost militia army can deliver a greater ‘matériel capability’ for a given level of defence expenditure. This is not a discussion about territorial defence or armed neutrality (covered here) and wholesale replication is not suggested as the Swiss approach evolved in an idiosyncratic context.

The Background to Armee61

Cold War tensions escalated across Europe after the suppression of East German and Hungarian uprisings in 1953 and 1956. Remembering the Second World War, isolation and being bombed by the allies, the Swiss population endorsed a program of stockpiling resources, nuclear shelters for all and modernising their militia to create Armee61. The foundations were cultural and normative—an ‘armed neutrality’ tradition of universal service going back to 1848, a warrior history of bloody inter-Cantonal wars, and providing the best-disciplined mercenaries in Europe. Annual military service built unifying links across generations and class. Promotion and the additional service it entailed was not optional. At each rank level from Sergeant to Captain, individuals first attended many weeks of individual training and then delivered basic training to a cohort of conscripts. This drove a military meritocracy because social norms dictated that to progress in civilian management you had to be an officer.


Armee61 could mobilize 650,000 men within 48 hours. As Figure 1 indicates, twelve border Brigades would occupy thousands of bunkers covering obstacles and preloaded demolitions on every route into the country. In the Alps, thousands more fortifications would be occupied by six fortress and reserve Brigades screened by two Divisions of mountain troops. Along the central Swiss plain, three Corps—each with its own mechanised Division—would prepare to counter-attack supported by fighter-bombers protected in concrete caverns on 16 mountain airbases.

A Swiss military map from the late 90s showing the areas of responsibility of Army formations (FAK = Field Army Corps, Gz = Border, R= Reserve, Geb = Mountain, Fest = Fortress) Wikipedia Räume der Armeekorps («Zeus» 1992)
Figure 1 - A Swiss military map from the late 90s showing the areas of responsibility of Army formations (FAK = Field Army Corps, Gz = Border, R= Reserve, Geb = Mountain, Fest = Fortress)
Wikipedia Räume der Armeekorps («Zeus» 1992)

Armee61: A comparison of Cold War costs and platforms

Swiss Cold War defence expenditure was between 3/5 and 1/2 of Australia’s—as shown at Figure 2. Allowing for RAN costs and some Swiss cost shifting, a similar order of funds was available for Army and Air Force in both countries.

Figure 2 - Comparison of Swiss and Australian Cold War defence expenditure in constant millions of US dollars (SPRI)
Figure 2 - Comparison of Swiss and Australian Cold War defence expenditure in constant millions of US dollars (SPRI)

Consider personnel and platforms in service in Figure 3. A generous mean size for the Australian Army during the Cold War would be 60,000—the Swiss could field 10 times that. Compare representative platforms in service in the late 70s or early 80s. The air force numbers suggest similar capability but, depending on weighting assigned to logistic stocks and artillery capability, including fortresses, the Swiss had between five and seven times the combat power.

Figure 3 - Comparison of Swiss and Australian Cold War Platforms in the late 1980’s (multiple sources incl Janes)
Figure 3 - Comparison of Swiss and Australian Cold War Platforms in the late 1980’s (multiple sources incl Janes)

The difference in Army matériel capability during the Cold War was stark—and the difference remains—inviting questions about relative performance which cannot be fully resolved, although territorial self-defence is a simpler role than expeditionary war. However, Swiss policy is to make capability visible to ensure deterrence, so they regularly invite the public and overseas observers to visit training. Witnessing combined arms teams clear a fully instrumented urban training complex, a militia pilot fly an F-5 Tiger from a mountain airbase low along narrow valleys to strafe targets at the Axalp, or an M109 gun crew on day 5 of annual refresher training fire high explosive rounds from the middle of a village where a small error could cause disaster, tends to validate Swiss performance standards.

The unique value proposition of the Swiss system is low personnel costs and high training efficiency. Their defence department pays personnel a few francs daily, while employers continue to pay employees, backed by a national compensation scheme, shifting some cost to other areas of the economy. However, this outlay is mainly to compensate soldiers undergoing either annual refresher training or the more substantial courses for NCOs and officers; it minimises compensation costs during initial training where soldiers are not yet employed.

The key to efficiency is that soldiers are only renumerated when actually training, and the time available for such training is limited by Parliament. Thus, the approach in Switzerland to training is fundamentally different to most armies. Training design does not proceed from a conventional task needs analysis to define performance and then calculate time needed, rather it asks what are the truly essential competencies to fight at short notice and how can we achieve the best possible standard of competency in the limited time available?

This requirement translates not only to a training culture where, for example, living in the field during basic training is a norm, but a search for efficiency in every area. Thus, the indigenously designed Swiss PZ68 tank had a steering wheel rather than levers to reduce driver training time, and the Swiss have been world leaders in the widespread introduction of simulators; a trend continued with their fully instrumented urban combat facilities. They emphasise that their training system is enabled by high standards of national education and direct feeds between technical schools and the military requiring technical skills.


The Swiss militia model could not readily be applied in Australia; it relies on long-established norms of universal conscription and would not provide Government the political freedom of deployment that regular forces offer. However, the Swiss example does demonstrate one thing very clearly. It demonstrates that different preparedness models can allow part-time soldiers to deliver large, capable combined arms warfighting formations at times of strategic need. Yet at the same time, it completely supports the idea that substantial initial training is essential for ‘professional standards’ of capability—the model very successfully used for the Australian ‘ready reserve’ experiment in the late 1990s. The apparent time and cost efficiency of Swiss force generation invites us to compare training paradigms and wonder whether (using a full-time leadership cadre) we also could field a high-end war fighting force staffed by reservists. This offers options to both expand the army and redeploy regular personnel to new and leadership roles as well as light and more agile formations.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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