Swiss Artillery Systems – Assessing Quality Properly

  • Switzerland is due to replace its artillery, in coming years, and is eyeing the market to make the best possible deal.
  • The risk is high, in such projects, to choose the lazy option and assume that more expensive means better, especially when funding defence is not a problem.
  • But Switzerland has a very specific military setting, and will have to scrutinize the market with care, to maintain its squeaky-clean record of stability and security.

The risk of being spoilt-for-choice

The main criteria, which apply to Switzerland, are reliability, mobility, and numbers. Reliability is somewhat of a no-brainer, as any army would hate for its expensive equipment to break down when needed. But perhaps it is even more crucial for the small European State, given the modest size of its territory. In larger territories, a breakdown need not be fatal: Russia failed consistently in the face of Germany in 1941, but strategic retreats inland gave time to the Red Army to reassess and reorganize – a luxury which Switzerland would not have.

The second criterion is even more critical: Switzerland is mainly composed of mountainous areas, where many vehicles, military or otherwise, are simply ill-adapted. In the case of an invasion, which is pretty much the only scenario which Switzerland prepares for, the Swiss armed forces would greatly benefit the fact that many surrounding countries are equipped with tracked vehicles. These highly armoured, but heavy and clumsy vehicles, are notoriously ill-adapted to mountainous terrain. Britannica writes: “In mountainous, forested, swampy, or built-up terrain, the role that tanks could play was necessarily limited, both because of diminished trafficability and because there was insufficient room for them to deploy.” Fortunately, the market does offer wheeled artillery systems, mounted onto 6×6 truck chassis, which can navigate freely on rough terrain. Such vehicles would hold an immense advantage over their tracked counterparts.

Finally – and this is why it would be wise not to pounce towards the most expensive piece of kit on the market – numbers will matter. Military expert William Rogerson writes that “the same expenditures on military procurement would produce a more effective defence if larger numbers of less sophisticated (and thus cheaper) weapons were purchased. This paper shows that such a result can occur even if the military derives no private consumption value from technically sophisticated weapons. Rather the organization of the decision-making process itself can produce this result.” Switzerland is a rich country, but also a small one. Whatever military budgets will be allocated to the replacement of artillery systems will yield only a handful of actual howitzers if Armasuisse goes for the most expensive and high-tech gimmicks. The reason why no one has dared take a shot at the Swiss is their nation’s capacity to cover their entire territory. If Bern has only a few howitzers, its capacity to secure its entire territory will be fragile. But with high numbers of simple, reliable and effective artillery units, any attempt to invade would quickly turn into a nightmare for the opposing force.

More expensive does not mean better

New military systems are tempting, for a myriad of reasons. The desire to impress enemies, opponents, competitors and neighbours can run high with military commanders. Military industrial companies are keen to sell their latest and most expensive invention, both to stand out on the market and to fund their future innovations. But spending lavish amounts on military systems has often proven a poor, if not doom-causing endeavour. The latest example of such ill-thought crusades has been the F-35 program, whose cost has now exceeded $400 billion, for a strategic benefit questioned by many. 4th-generation airplanes are still very capable of fulfilling most missions, at a fraction of the cost. And this is hardly the first time that industrials have convinced armies to purchase extremely costly solutions which quickly led to disasters (think Maginot line, Star Wars program, or Atlantic wall). The fact is that, though some military solutions have proven worth their cost, such as submarine technology, radar, or nuclear weapons), innovation is a dangerous business on the battlefields. Most of the time, wisdom lies in choosing tried and true options, and simply acquiring something which is sure to work and adapted to specific needs.

The swiss art of warfare relies on geographic saturation

And Armasuisse, the Swiss military agency in charge of procurement, knows exactly what the country’s needs are. In fact, the Swiss have always known. When they were bracing for a possible German invasion in 1938, the plan was simple, yet effective. Should German troops have crossed the border, the Swiss militia would have withdrawn from city centers and dispersed into the countryside and mountains. From there, they would have been very difficult to locate or attack, by German troops, while Swiss infantry and artillery could have laid fire on every square inch of the territory. This strategy, which effectively deterred Germany from such a risky campaign, relied on large numbers of infantry and artillery units, as quick and nimble as possible. Artillery units from newer generations, such as the French Caesar cannon, would suit the Swiss defence requirements perfectly. Caesar artillery units have been fielded for around 10 years in the French army, and were battle-proven in Mali, where they were able to provide cover for infantry troops, despite immense territory and a particular agile enemy. Caesar truck design dropped the traditional armoured shell and traded the weight against a new form of protection: enhanced mobility, without foregoing firepower. As a result, from Switzerland’s geography, units hardly need armour since they can fire from one valley into another. Lighter, wheel-mounted units could therefore make good use of superior mobility to safely harass enemy troops.

Despite the quality of the Swiss air force, the national defence plan does not rely much on it. Even with command of the skies, an invading force would be hard-pressed to capitalize on it, as the final stage of a military operation, infantry occupation, would be unable to be carried out. If Switzerland chooses wisely, the security of the territory will continue to be effectively ensured. Simple, reliable, affordable, and fire-proven solutions exist on the European market. But for this, chief-of-staff general Wellinger will need to resist the temptation of overspending on new gimmicks.

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Eric Morris

Freelance author, security consultant and defense expert

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