Home / Europe / Commentary: Switzerland’s increasing Need for Transport Aircraft

Commentary: Switzerland’s increasing Need for Transport Aircraft

1 September, 2021

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

In mid-2021, the world watched in shock as the Taliban pushed through Afghanistan, taking land and cities that the international coalition had spent 20 years securing. Then in mid-August, Kabul fell, and a rush by foreign countries to evacuate their citizens and Afghan locals began. While the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other major powers, sent a steady stream of transport aircraft to create an air-bridge, other countries such as Switzerland, found themselves helpless to do the same due to the lack of any suitable transport aircraft (also known as airlifters).

At the same time as the “Kabul-Airlift”, unprecedented wildfires raged in Greece, Turkey, and other parts of the Mediterranean, and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. While Switzerland was able to provide some assistance in these cases, this trio of events highlights challenges countries will increasingly face in the future.

The Kabul Airlift

Switzerland is responsible for the evacuation of about 280 people. This includes Swiss nationals working at the office of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), 28 Swiss nationals working for international organizations (IOs), and 38 local employees at the SDC office along with their approximately 200 relatives. While some groups and political parties called for the government to take in additional Afghans as refugees, Switzerland remains in a position where it is able to evacuate exactly zero people.

Six Swiss SDC employees were initially able to be evacuated from the country thanks to the help of foreign partners on August 17. This is likely due to these individuals being Swiss nationals, government employees, and very few, whereas the others lack one of the two criteria. Existing country-to-country cooperation does not appear to prioritize non-government employees, regardless of nationality, as they are not in any way crucial for partner nations who prioritize their own nationals and local employees.

About one week later, on August 23, the FDFA announced a charter flight from SWISS was on its way to Tashkent, to where a military airlifter from the Bundeswehr had ultimately transported some 100 of the people Switzerland is responsible for, from Kabul. 219 people were flown to Zurich, including 141 SDC employees and locals, as well as 78 passengers from other states. The FDFA claims this flight is “supporting the airlift to bring people out of Afghanistan”, which is not the case as Germany had flown these people out of Afghanistan after prioritizing its own nationals and local employees. This flight was plan C, after plans A (using own transport aircraft which do not exist) and B (sending a charter aircraft to Kabul) failed. This “concrete contribution to the international community’s evacuation efforts” is a symbolic gesture that the government had to commit to, to get the people it is responsible for to Switzerland and to prevent further burdening nations flying the airbridge. The SWISS aircraft also flew with COVID-19 protective equipment for Uzbekistan, a helpful albeit symbolic, and likely one-time, gesture, due to not having the aircraft to repeatedly fly humanitarian supplies year-round to countries in need. It is unlikely any aid would have been given at all, had Switzerland not chartered the SWISS aircraft. As described further below, Switzerland’s ability to provide COVID-19 aid is severely limited. There is no word of further flights of any kind.

The use of civilian airlines in a crisis area is unreliable, as many airlines avoid flying over Afghan airspace. These, along with charter aircraft, would not be able to land in Hamid-Karzai International Airport (HKIA), as it was limited to military operations only upon the United States assuming Air Traffic Control. Thoughts of acquiring non-military transport aircraft are also ill-conceived. For use in crisis and disaster zones, suitable transport aircraft would need an active-protection system (APS). In Kabul, a French airlifter was seen deploying flares, presumably as a precaution, while taking off. Additionally, soldiers accompany airlifters to secure landing zones after arrival. Aircraft under military operation also means interoperability and standardization with partner states. Lastly, some landing zones may require Short-Takeoff and Landing (STOL) maneuvers on un-paved landing zones, which passenger airlines are unable to do.

Political Positions

Switzerland is entirely dependent on the goodwill of other states for evacuations. As one politician from the Green-Liberal party pointed out, Switzerland has previously been in need of help in the past, such as during the 2005 Sumatra Tsunami and the 2013 Libya embassy evacuation. As a result, transport aircraft would be ideal for humanitarian missions in disaster areas. A politician from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who favors the acquisition of such air craft in contrast to his party’s stance, also points out that the procurement of masks at the start of COVID-19 pandemic proves that each state needs its own resources. On the other end of the political spectrum, a politician from the Socialist Party pointed out that the current situation in Afghanistan shows the potential use of transport aircraft for humanitarian purposes.

The potential acquisition of transport aircraft is not new. Previous research into this topic has found that party politics have sabotaged Switzerland’s humanitarian and peace policy. The “un-holy alliance” between the right-most and left-most parties, together with so called “anti-militarists” have always been against transport aircraft. The Swiss People’s Party maintains a hold on traditional neutrality with a focus on territorial defense, seeing no need for transport aircraft, and the left-most party, the Green Party, is against the army as a whole, including against peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and disaster-relief. As one politician of the Green Party said, they oppose aircraft that can be used for foreign missions and find that Swiss citizens are not in danger (referring to Kabul) because Switzerland does not have its own transport aircraft, claiming Switzerland can rent aircraft for this purpose. However as explained, these three statements are all incorrect. Countries would not be trying to evacuate their citizens if Kabul was safe, renting aircraft is not possible, and there are no alternatives to military transport aircraft.

The Swiss Armed Forces have constantly evolved from what it was during the Cold War. Where once the focus was conventional defense, today an increased focus has been placed on the support of civilian authorities (disaster relief, fire-fighting, protecting international conferences), and peacekeeping (UN/OSCE mandates and delivery of humanitarian aid). Simultaneously, the number of fighter-jets is being reduced as will likely be the case with ground-based combat assets later this decade. This opens opportunities for equipment such as transport helicopters and aircraft, which can be deployed domestically and abroad for a variety of missions, as explained above and previously.

While the Swiss Armed Forces continuously modernizes to meet modern and future challenges and threats, so-called “army-opponents/abolitionists”, retain the same position as during the Cold-War. Blanket anti-militarism has now led to these parties, groups, and individuals to oppose peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and disaster-relief, claiming incorrectly that there are alternatives. Rather than educating and adapting their positions in line with current events, this fraction of the population poses an obstacle to Switzerland being able to carry out the trio of tasks mentioned above and prevent the country from strengthening its humanitarian tradition.

Multi-Role Functionality

Climate Change will lead to more disaster relief operations in the future. Extreme weather events will cause desertification, drought and wildfires, which often precede civil unrest, migration and the need for humanitarian aid. Heavy rains and flash floods will also become more common. Armed Forces world-wide will be challenged to conduct several disaster-response operations simultaneously.

The Haiti Earthquake is not the only time Switzerland sent aid to the country. In 2016 the Armed Forces sent its Beech 1900D with a limited amount of humanitarian supplies. Humanitarian personnel had to fly via commercial aircraft and could only do so once the airport at Port-au-Prince reopened for commercial traffic. The August deployment was a cooperative effort between the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the Swiss Red Cross (SRC), the ideal trio of Swiss humanitarian aid. In this instance, the Armed Forces deployed their Dassault Falcon 900EX EASy II, along with a humanitarian expert, humanitarian supplies, and experts from the FDFA and SRC. While some aid is better than none, the amount provided could have been greater. In a case such as this, a proper transport aircraft loaded with humanitarian supplies would have made a larger and more lasting positive impact.

The same is true with COVID-19 aid. In recent weeks, a small jet operated by the Armed Forces has flown medical supplies to Tunisia and Mongolia, while a civilian aircraft was chartered to deliver aid to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. While admirable, these efforts highlight the shortcomings of Swiss aid. Charter aircraft may not always be available, and the destination country must be stable and have a functioning airport. Flights are also limited to availability of aircraft. With its own airlifters, Switzerland could provide a steady stream of more aid world-wide.

A final example are the wildfires around the Mediterranean this summer. Switzerland has experience with aerial firefighting, and deployed three Super-Puma medium-lift helicopters to Greece. An Armed Forces jet also transported military and civilian personnel to help on the ground. In the mid-2020s, Switzerland’s fleet of helicopters will require replacing, opening the doors to the prospect of heavy-lift helicopters. While there will be some overlap in capabilities between transport helicopters and aircraft, there are some crucial differences, such as payload and range.

Previous Attempts at Acquisition

In 1999, the Federal Council admitted it is difficult to provide aid to an area without its own and immediately available aerial transport. It argued that the circumstances in a crisis change so quickly that only with its own airlift capacity can Switzerland respond to changing circumstances in a timely and credible manner. Furthermore, the operations of the SDC and the Humanitarian Aid Unit are dependent on aerial transport. It concludes that airlift capabilities are decisive in the Armed Forces providing crisis management support and peacekeeping in timely, effective, and credible manner.

In 2007, after a motion by a representative from The Liberals, the government argued in favor of establishing a pool of transport aircraft for civilian and military deployments. Representatives from the Green Party argued against the motion and it ultimately failed. In 2014, representatives from the Green-Liberal and Socialist Parties presented motions on this issue, however both were shut down by the National Council after opposition by the Green and the Swiss People’s Parties.

The most recent attempt, introduced in 2020 by a representative from the Socialist Party, has not yet been concluded though the Federal Council has proposed that the motion be rejected. It argued that civilian airlift options exist and are used by the UN, and by Switzerland when rotating and supplying its contingent in Kosovo. This argument is weak, as the civilian option is the back-up plan and is not reliable. Civilian airlines will not fly into conflict zones, their aircraft are not equipped with APS and cannot land on diverse terrain. Another argument is that European states are acquiring transport aircraft of their own, which Switzerland could theoretically use as well, though as the Kabul airlift has shown, these states will look to their own needs first. The assumption that Switzerland can leech off the airlift capacity of other countries is to deny Switzerland’s responsibility to its own citizens.

A Frustrating Affair

The Federal Council’s position ignores developments of the 21st century and the continuously increasing need for Switzerland to have its own transport aircraft. In 2010, it itself stated its desire to double the number of peacekeepers abroad to 500, however this is not possible without an autonomous way to rotate contingents and ensure supply flights – a clear indication that the current members of the Federal Council are ill-informed on the matter. For peacekeeping, firefighting, delivering humanitarian aid, evacuations, disaster relief and more – there are no alternatives to transport aircraft which only the Swiss Armed Forces can fly, whenever they would need to be, wherever they must go.

The Kabul Airlift is only the most recent example of Switzerland’s increasing need for transport aircraft. While Switzerland’s humanitarian and foreign policies continue to be sabotaged by political parties and interest groups, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the establishment of a humanitarian airbridge, as no commercial aircraft are permitted to land in Kabul. Ironically, the WHO, and many other UN bodies and international organizations, are based in Switzerland, the country that is unable to support the WHO in this effort.

Transport Aircraft should not be such a contentious issue, yet in Switzerland they are. Excuses presented by political parties and interest groups are a stain on the country’s humanitarian tradition and a betrayal to Swiss citizens abroad who are at the mercy of other states in times of need. The Swiss Armed Forces are able to operate airlifters, all that is missing is the political will to do what is right and necessary – Switzerland must spread its wings.

Image: A Swiss Air Force Dassault Falcon, the largest transport aircraft Switzerland currently has available (Source: Kecko via CC BY-2.0)

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.