Home / Europe / The Prospect of Heavy-Lift Helicopters for Switzerland

The Prospect of Heavy-Lift Helicopters for Switzerland

8 July, 2021

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

In late February 2021, Swiss media reported that Switzerland was for the first time assessing the possible acquisition of heavy-lift helicopters. This news is based off a November 2020 Department of Defense, Civil Protection, and Sport (DDPS) report, which looks into the future development of military peacekeeping/support. In it, the federal council establishes its desire for Switzerland to increase qualitatively high-value and in-demand contributions to international peacekeeping.

The subject of heavy-lift helicopters was previously assessed in a detailed 2017 report. At that time the idea of purchasing such aircraft was rejected due to the urgency of replacing equipment that was becoming outdated and the current fleet of medium-lift helicopters not having reached their end-of-life yet. This despite the report arguing that heavy-lift helicopters could broaden the capacity of aerial transport within the country and abroad. Instead, the topic of transport helicopters was adopted into the medium-term armament planning of the military. Now this time is approaching with the replacement of the current fleet set to become an issue as of 2025 due to the helicopters reaching the end of their life-spans in the early 2030s after being in service for  some 40 years. 

Current fleet and deployments abroad

Transport helicopters are one of the arguably few means the Swiss Armed Forces has that can fulfil all three of its mandates: national defense, the support of civilian authorities and international peace-support. To achieve this, Switzerland operates 15 Aérospatiale AS 332M1 Super Pumas, built from 1987-1989, and 10 of its newer variant, the Eurocopter AS532UL Cougar Mk 1, built in 1998. 20 Eurocopter EC635 light helicopters are also in service.

Since 1999, Switzerland has regularly engaged in peace-support and humanitarian aid abroad with its Super Pumas/Cougars. Two to three have been stationed in Pristina, Kosovo since 2002 to support the Swiss contingent, SWISSCOY, and the Kosovo Force, KFOR. The transport of disaster relief has also been provided regularly, most notably after the 2005 Tsunami in Sumatra, and in Albania in 1999. Swiss helicopters have supported firefighting efforts not only within the country, but also in Portugal (2004), Greece (2007), and Israel (2010). And from May 2005 to September 2009, two Cougars supported the European Union Force Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Switzerland also only contributes to peace missions under United Nations (UN) or Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mandates.

An increase in capacity

Switzerland’s Super Puma and Cougar medium-lift helicopters have proven invaluable since their acquisition. The helicopters continue to be deployed extensively within the country for military purposes, such as the transport of troops, material, equipment, and vehicles (externally). In the support of civilian authorities, they are used to transport police, support Search and Rescue (SaR) with infra-red cameras, support with fighting forest-fires, deliver water during droughts (external loads), transport international leaders during official and diplomatic visits, and patrol the border regions in collaboration with the Border Guard.

It is the current defense minister, Viola Amherd, who requested a report on how to increase Swiss contributions to peace operations abroad, expressing the federal council’s (Switzerland’s executive body) wish for the country to increase its qualitative contributions. Out of eight recommendations proposed in the resulting report, contributing transport helicopters is one option. Future deployments are also to be expanded geographically, as most of Swiss peace-support is in the Balkans, with a heavier emphasis placed on Africa.

International Demand for Tactical Aerial Mobility.

The demand for Tactical Aerial Mobility, defined as the aerial mobility within a deployment zone, has seen a rise in significance and demand in recent years, particularly by the UN. In practice this means the transport of personnel and material, firefighting, aerial reconnaissance, SaR, and rapid deployment capabilities, in addition to air rescue, aerial mapping, and the assessment of affected areas after a disaster. As the UN is largely reliant on its partners and Troop Contributing Countries, TCCs, the demand for such aerial capabilities, particularly heavy-left helicopters, has grown. In most cases this need is outside of Europe, where developments in recent years have shown that humanitarian aid is often in conflict zones. Switzerland is one country which has repeatedly been asked to contribute to international peacekeeping missions with transport helicopter, particularly as Switzerland has some experience in this field and aerial transport is often lacking.

Unlike ground-based means of transportation, helicopters can be rapidly deployed to otherwise hard to reach geographic areas and carry personnel, vehicles and equipment both internally and externally. They can bring emergency relief to disaster zones or cut-off regions and carry out evacuations when land-based vehicles cannot. Remote bases may also need to be re-supplied by air.* The UN has also established certain criteria that contributed helicopters must meet. This includes 24/7 deployment capability, self-defense systems and adequate weaponry, and a 30-minute reaction time during the day and one hour at night.

Medium-Lift limitations

Despite having experience flying helicopters in international peace-support and humanitarian capacities, Switzerland’s current fleet, and medium-lift helicopters in general, has limitations. So far, the requests for helicopter contributions have been turned down because Switzerland’s current fleet are only suitable for operational areas in which no hostilities against international forces are expected. Among the limitations is that Super Pumas and Cougars do not have a cargo door and carry a limited number of people and equipment. And this too only under relatively good weather conditions. Furthermore, high-temperatures in sub-tropical regions reduce the performance ability of helicopters, meaning in many cases only larger variants can transport sufficient material and personnel over the necessary distances in all-weather conditions, day or night.

The UN also decrees that helicopters need a degree of self-protection relative to the operating area, regardless of if the helicopters are civilian or military in nature. Only in doing so can the organization reach areas where a state does not control all its territory and the threat of non-state armed groups exists. Currently, no helicopters in Switzerland’s fleet meet the minimum requirements for self-defense and even if this were remedied, the additional burdened of the needed equipment would reduce their operational effectiveness due to added weight and reduced space. Externally-mounted infra-red sensors and fuel-pods for night-time flights and long-distance missions would also cause additional stress to the machines.

Heavy-lift prospects

Many modern peacekeeping missions cannot implement their mandates without an adequate provision of aerial assets. The need for aircraft is especially apparent in large countries such as Mali, where a high threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on key routes, poor road conditions, severe flooding, enormous distances, and threat of ambushes exists.* In this and other deployment zones, natural hazards can cut off entire communities, making aerial transport the only way to reach them. Civilian sections of peacekeeping missions in regional offices are also dependent on military components for their security during travel, making properly equipped transport helicopters a neccesity.*

The lack of proper and sufficient air assets also hampers the ability of the UN to protect civilians and engage with certain communities. Aerial assets allow for humanitarian staff and aid to be transported, and for medical and security evacuations to be carried out as needed. In this regard, heavy-lift helicopters permit far greater payloads, greater safety, and more versatility compared to medium-lift helicopters.^ With heavy-lift helicopters, humanitarian missions can go essentially anywhere with a degree of accessibility, maneuverability and versatility other means of transport cannot.

Military transport helicopters, unlike civilian variants, can secure their own landing-site without support from ground assets. This is done by on-board sensor systems scanning the ground in addition to visual surveying by the crew. Upon landing the accompanying infantry disembarks first to secure the landing zone around the helicopter, which can also be accompanied by armed escort helicopters remaining overhead. This makes military transport helicopters the much more feasible choice for UN personnel to travel to vulnerable areas in remote locations. These can also be fitted with medical equipment to evacuate injured peacekeepers and civilians while facilitating the rapid deployment of ground forces in response to an early warning or confirmed threat to civilians.* In simple terms, helicopters play an important role in helping UN peacekeeping missions protect civilians.

The ability to travel long distances also means mission personnel can engage with the civilian population across a mission country, permitting the UN, for instance, to understand the needs and concerns of the local population, allowing for the implementation of activities that promote social cohesion and reduce violence. In peacekeeping missions such as the UN’s presence in Mali, MINUSMA, where a lack of aerial assets exists, additional aircraft would provide a significant boost to the UNs ability to protect civilians.

Options for Switzerland

Despite engaging in peace-support since 1953, only some 250 Swiss men and women are currently deployed abroad on peace missions. This quantity despite the government long wishing to double the number to 500 or to increase the value of these deployments. Through the deployment of heavy-lift helicopters, acknowledged internationally as a particularly strong sign of solidarity, both can be achieved. This statement is true because a number of personnel would need to be deployed as well, including pilots/crew, loadmasters, mechanics, and air operations staff.* While on deployment, security gunners, air traffic controllers, and firefighters would also be needed, though these could be provided by another country.^ Additionally, hangars, fuel points, tool kits, and ground generators, among other things, would also have to be considered.^ Added together, the 2017 report calculates that one contingent would demand about 125 personnel to fulfill all required tasks, keeping in mind a partner country could occupy some functions.

Part of the current fleet will need to begin being replaced in the coming years. While there are clear benefits to the acquisition of heavy-lift helicopters, such an acquisition must also make sense for domestic use and be within existing financial means. Ultimately, the real challenge for heavy-lift helicopters may be justifying their domestic, rather than international, use, as international deployments is envisioned as being their primary purpose. One domestic potential is the transport of emergency material to power plants in the event of an incident, as the current fleet has limited capacity. Additionally, a core benefit to the Swiss Armed Forces itself is the experience boost of serving in the field it would gain, which would be useful in cases of crises and directly affecting Switzerland.

In order for such an acquisition to make sense, a 2015 report states that at least six units would need to be acquired, costing at least 500 million Swiss Francs. Second-hand helicopters are also an option however may require more regular maintenance and upgrading to modern standards.^ Depending on the type, four helicopters would be operational while two would be in maintenance.^ With three or four units, one would be in maintenance though the manufacturer would give an indication of maintenance intervals based on hours flown.^ It is likely the report calculates for two sets of three helicopters, in which one per trio has its turn at maintenance.

Costs could additionally be brought down if another department, such as the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, FDFA, contributed. Ultimately, peacebuilding abroad forms a part of Switzerland’s foreign policy as well. Cooperation with civilian partners could also lower the costs for maintenance.

Should politicians however find Switzerland does not need to increase contributions to peace-support and be satisfied with new medium-lift helicopters for domestic deployments instead, the prospects would flop. This would be a sign to the international community that Switzerland does not wish to increase support to the UN and international peacebuilding measures, as the primary purpose of heavy-lift helicopters would be to strengthen international peace-support and humanitarian disaster relief. Never the less, heavy lift-helicopters would undoubtedly provide an increased value in comparison to the current fleet domestically, as Switzerland’s geography and topography in the alpine regions, and dense population centers make it ideal for helicopters. From a military perspective, helicopters permit the deployment of forces across the country regardless of the conditions and status of ground-based infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and railways.

Potential Models

Currently, only two heavy-lift models are viable options for Switzerland, the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and the Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion. This is likely due to standardization and interoperability with Switzerland’s existing infrastructure.

Of these two, the Chinook would most likely be the realistic choice. With 20 countries operating over 950 Chinooks, this helicopter model is continuously used for humanitarian and disaster relief operations worldwide. It is “battle-tested” and likely cheaper than competitors. Despite the initial design which first took off in 1961, the Chinook is consistently being upgraded to meet modern standards and has little to do with the original model. The Block II standard, designed to maintain operational capacity to at least 2060, is designed to lift more, especially in high and hot-operating conditions, by combining new technologies such as advanced rotor blades, redesigned fuel tanks, a strengthened fuselage, an improve drivetrain, and state-of-the-art avionics. A Block III design is also believed to come into development to take the successful model past 2060.

While the King Stallion was originally designed for high, hot and littoral environments, and while it is allegedly able to lift more than competing models, it was also designed and build to operate in marinized environments with features such as air-to-air refueling – capabilities not needed for operation in Switzerland or on peace-keeping missions.

Benefits of Peace Operations

One of the nine new goals set out in Switzerland’s Security Policy Report of 2021, is to strengthen international cooperation, security and stability, by engaging in the support of rule-of-law based international order and to use civilian and military means to promote stability and security. By use of its Good Offices and peacekeeping, Switzerland contributes to the prevention and solution of conflicts. The report explains that peacebuilding, development and humanitarian aid are closely connected, and that one way to strengthen international cooperation, security and stability, is the further development of military peacekeeping with a focus on high-value and in-demand capacities such as aerial transport, aerial reconnaissance, or special functions in training, logistics, or explosive ordnance disposal.

The acquisition of heavy-lift helicopters would undoubtedly provide a leap in capacity both within Switzerland and abroad, while also serving as a major indication of Switzerland’s commitment to international cooperation in peace-support. The timing is also crucial, as Switzerland is currently running for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat for 2023-2024. The peacekeeping efforts of candidate countries will undoubtedly be one aspect states will consider when voting, and with a long-term commitment to a peacekeeping mission through the deployment of a helicopter contingent, Switzerland would surely increase its chances of winning its candidacy and increasing its reputation and legitimacy as a center for humanitarianism and peacebuilding.

It may be possible that in the not-too distant future Switzerland will operate a helicopter fleet with a trio of models, one light, one medium and one heavy. Such a trio could theoretically cover any scenario the Swiss Armed Forces would be called upon to overcome. While the acquisition process will prove to be a challenge, acquiring heavy-lift helicopters would guarantee retaining the spectrum of capacities which will become more relevant and called upon in the future.

While heavy-lift helicopters would be deployed on peace missions abroad, they would provide a high value for the country. Its reputation and credibility as a promoter of peace and security, and experience gained in the field would be a boost to the DDPS and FDFA. Switzerland has little to lose by taking this opportunity to increase its peace-support contributions; All that is needed is the will to do so.

With thanks to the below individuals who provided their knowledge for this research.

^ Kevin D. Stringer, Ph.D., Colonel, United States Army

* Seán Smith, Peacekeeping Researcher, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Image: A Boeing Chinook helicopter

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.