LT. BLAISE BAUMANN taxis his Northrop F-5 Tiger fighter jet out to the takeoff zone. He revs his engine. Suddenly, it ignites. The F-5 thunders down the runway, rises over the village church, and heads out over the Jura Mountains. ``In three minutes, we dogfight,'' Lieutenant Baumann shouts to two other pilots over the radio. ``I'm against both of you.''
The Swiss last waged war in 1798. Napoleon beat them. Ever since then, they have vowed never to lose again. This small, neutral country, most famous for its skiing and its chocolate, is an armed fortress, ready to erupt in fire to repel any attack.
``Look there,'' says Michel, a Swiss friend driving out to the Payerne base. The pastoral farmland is divided by what seems to be an innocent wire fence. ``That's an antitank mine field.''
The car speeds on.
``Stop, there's the local firing range,'' Michel says.
It looks like a small ski chalet.
``If I took you to the Alps, you wouldn't be able to spot our air bases,'' Michel adds. ``They are carved into the side of the mountain.''
Switzerland does not just have an army, some Swiss say. Switzerland is an army. Within 24 hours, Swiss officials say they can mobilize 650,000 trained soldiers, even though full-time professionals number only 1,500. The Israelis based their defense forces on the Swiss model.
Every capable Swiss man is expected to serve 30 years, two to four weeks a year, starting from his 20th birthday. All reservists keep their 7.5-millimeter automatic rifles and 24 rounds of ammunition at home, without any noticeable crime problem. Women, reflecting the country's conservative mores, only serve in small numbers as volunteers.
``This is not `Full Metal Jacket' or a Prussian-style army,'' explains Richard Gauthier at the Ministry of Defense in the capital, Bern. ``It is a militia force made up of civilians - something you Anglo-Saxons with your professional armies find hard to understand.''
Just how civilian becomes clear when pilot Baumann heads home to Cudrefin, a small village on Lake Neuch^atel. He stops in front of a factory. The sign reads, ``Baumann Construction SA.''
``I fly seven weeks a year,'' Baumann says. ``Most of my time, I run the company.''
Blaise Baumann, elite fighter pilot, is an ordinary businessman. Some pilots in his squadron work for Swissair. But one is a management consultant, another a dentist, another an engineer.
As a group, they are considered among the best fighter pilots in the world, and the best mountain flyers. McDonnell Douglas officials here to sell the ultra-sophisticated F-18 - the Swiss plan to buy $3.3 billion worth of American warplanes - are impressed.
``We've seen Israelis, Spaniards, Americans fly, and the Swiss are every bit as good,'' says one McDonnell Douglas engineer. ``They're top-flight.''
Swiss pilots don't fly to get rich. As reservists, they are reimbursed 120 francs (about $90) a day, barely enough to cover the costs of transport to and from the air base. While the Swiss government spends 1.9 percent of its gross national product on defense, the United States must put out about 6.5 percent.
Much of the Swiss Army's cost is hidden, absorbed by the private sector. Companies stock reserves in case of war and continue to pay their workers for the time spent out on reserve duty. The theory is that a good soldier makes a good worker, that the Army makes a first-rate school of business management. Ambitious young Swiss men strive to become officers.
``Army service teaches teamwork, how to deal with people, how to tackle tough problems,'' says businessman Baumann. On the wall of his office is a paper listing his employees' dates for reserve duty. ``It's part of our normal planning.''
Baumann proposes a visit to the Auberge de Cygne, which his company is renovating. After he arrives, he climbs up to the roof.
``Watch out for the gnats,'' he warns the workers. ``They are eating into the wood.''
Back on the ground, Marc Kiene nods. He is the Auberge's owner, a chef in the Army, and he has worked with the Baumanns before. ``Serious people,'' he mutters. ``They do fine work.''
What about Baumann the fighter pilot?
``Oh,'' Mr. Kiene laughs. ``You mean, his hobby.''
Back home with his wife, Elianne, 11-year-old daughter, Anick, and eight-year-old son, Cyril, Baumann describes how his father took him glider flying every Sunday as a small boy. When he was 12, he first flew a small biplane. Ever since he has been hooked. ``Flying is an incredible feeling,'' he says. ``Up there, you control nature.''
Drafted at age 20, Baumann applied to pilot school. After two two-week courses, he became one of 300 students accepted from 3,000 candidates. He spent the next year in intensive training before his selection to the elite fighter forces. But he turned down the chance to become an Army professional.
``I didn't want to be just a gladiator,'' he says. ``I wanted the variety of business.''
His life style is solidly middle class. With the children, he likes to build elaborate model-train sets. In summer, the family sails on the nearby lake. In winter, they ski. They almost never socialize with Air Force families. Eliane Baumann teaches at a school for the handicapped in nearby Fribourg and doesn't like to be branded ``a pilot's wife.''
Some Swiss would like to get rid of their formidable Army. A group of 2,000 pacifists has collected 111,000 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to abolish the Army. The vote is planned for early next year. The anti-Army organizers complain that their country is too militaristic, and ask what use such a conventional army is if the next war in Europe goes nuclear.
Baumann doesn't worry about the referendum. History, he says, taught him that Swiss neutrality will be respected only if the Swiss defend themselves. In World War II, he points out, Hitler drew up plans to invade Switzerland, only to draw back before the high cost of taking on the formidable Swiss.
``When Hitler tried to test us by sending some German planes across our airspace, we shot them down,'' he recalls. ``We must be prepared to do it again.''
In any new European conflict, Swiss officials worry that both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces would be tempted to take advantage of neutral Switzerland to outflank their adversary. Baumann's task is to scare them off.
Back at his training exercise, he flies at Mach 0.8, 2,500 meters (1 miles) high, rising 174 meters (570 feet) a second. He spots the two ``attacking'' F-5s. Jamming to the right, he loops behind them. For a split second, he has the two jets in his sights.
They scatter, however, before he can ``fire.'' He gives chase, only to find an attacker maneuver behind him. He turns right. Left. Nothing works. In fighter parlance, he is a hunted rabbit. The combat is finished.
``I hope we never have to fight for real,'' Baumann says, back on the ground. ``But if we do, I'll be ready.''