An Army's New Task: Saving Cows at Risk

Peace refocuses Swiss military

Part of the new concept of the Swiss Army apparently includes soldiers forming a bucket brigade.

Earlier this year, about 300 soldiers and more than a dozen Air Force pilots were drafted to extinguish fires that had engulfed the forests of the Grisons, a canton in the eastern part of Switzerland.

With the fall of the Soviet empire and its Warsaw Pact, Switzerland no longer sees any potential enemies in Europe. So the Swiss Army will need to find new niches to fill, says Martin von Orelli, chief of operations for the Federal Military Department.

But for one of the oldest militia armies in the Western world, the notion of heeding the call to arms for tasks beyond halting an invasion of Swiss soil is quite striking. After all, the concept of armed neutrality has been the Swiss Army's raison d'tre for more than a century.

Unlike the United States, Switzerland has no standing army. Its armed forces more closely resemble those citizen-soldiers of America's Revolutionary War, the minutemen.

Every able-bodied Swiss male between the ages of 18 and 42 serves in the Army. Women serve on a volunteer basis. After completing three months of boot camp, soldiers return to civilian life. But each year for three weeks they rejoin their units for "refresher" training.

Every soldier has an automatic rifle and ammunition at home. If the Army is activated, the soldier leaves on a moment's notice and joins his unit at a location known only to it.

But while the Army remains the ultimate protector of Swiss freedom and territory, the lack of a foreign threat mean that other tasks are taking on priorities.

"The Swiss Army ... must fit into a new concept of the world," says Jean-Rodolphe Christen, who retired last December as chief of ground forces.

IN coming years, Swiss soldiers will become more active abroad in humanitarian roles, says Claude Gerbex, a spokesman for the Federal Military Department.

Soldiers likely will be trained for tasks ranging from organizing and feeding refugees to providing transportation and communication in war-ravaged areas.

In addition, the world will see more unarmed Swiss wearing yellow berets involved in international peacekeeping missions. Swiss already have been stationed in hot spots such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.

Switzerland's decision last year to join NATO's Partnership for Peace is proving to be a big step in this direction.

As a member of the partnership, Switzerland will cooperate in search-and-rescue missions and arms-control and nonproliferation exercises.

"Switzerland can contribute to the peace and stability of Europe," says Mr. Gerbex, the Federal Military Department spokesman. "The Army has to adapt to new situations."

"Combat preparation is still the principal task of the Army. But in view of the current context of security in Europe, the preparation for this has changed," Defense Minister Adolf Ogi has said in a written statement.

Even if it means saving cows from a flooded barn or directing traffic at a disaster site.

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