Home / Europe / A Comparative Overview of European Neutral States’ Armed Forces Part II: Aerial and naval assets, and an analysis of neutrality

A Comparative Overview of European Neutral States’ Armed Forces Part II: Aerial and naval assets, and an analysis of neutrality

11 September, 2020

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

Part I: The practice of neutrality

In a previous article from the Human Security Centre on the topic of neutral European states, the concept of neutrality was examined in relation to how Switzerland, Austria and Ireland have put neutrality into practice. The study first goes into the history of neutrality in each of these countries, followed by an analysis of conventional ground-based military assets. It ends with a comparison between the three, leading into this second article which looks into aerial and naval military assets, and examines how neutrality is practiced as a foreign policy by these three countries.

Part II: Aerial assets

As with ground-based assets, a variety of aircraft exist to enable a range of capabilities. However, given the defensive nature of neutrality, many of these types of aircraft, such as bombers and weaponized drones, are not operated by any neutral state. For this overview, all relevant assets with aerial-oriented combat capabilities can be listed into the following categories:

  • Multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA)
  • Light fighters (LF)
  • Armed jet-trainers (AJT)
  • Armed turbo-prop aircraft (ATPA)
  • Aerial transport aircraft (ATA – capable of carrying equipment and troops)
  • Ground-based Air-Defense (GBAD)

The Swiss Air Force

The Swiss Air Force first spread its wings on July 31, 1914, when a cavalry captain named Theodor Real was tasked with establishing this new branch of the army. Switzerland is currently undertaking an evaluation to replace its aged fleet of F-5 Tigers and F/A-18 Hornets in what is termed Air 2030. This process includes the renewal of ground-air defensive capabilities known as BodLuv. The renewal of the fleet will be voted on in a referendum in September 2020.

The quantity of jets in service has continuously decreased since the end of the Cold War. In 1990, Switzerland operated 300 fighter aircraft of four different models. In 1994, the Hawker Hunter was retired, and in 2003 the Mirage III and in 2006 the BAE Hawk followed them out of service. The Tigers have effectively been retired from active duty already, leaving just the Hornets operational. Today, the force consists of:

The Austrian Air Force

Austria’s modern fleet was founded on December 9, 1955. Similar to Switzerland, Austria currently flies a MCRA and smaller, lighter and older aircraft. The country is looking to replace these aircraft in the coming years to ensure an air combat capability up to 2049. The Eurofighter acquisition in the early 2000s continues to be surrounded by a scandal involving fraud and deception. Though the aircraft should be able to fly for another 30 years, an early retirement beginning in 2020 has been considered. Currently, the force consists of:

The Irish Air Corps

The Irish “air force” was founded in 1922 as the Air Service and is today part of the Irish Army rather than its own branch. The Air Corps is unique amongst the air branches examined here in that it does not possess any jet-powered combat-capable aircraft and instead operates Pilatus PC-9Ms. As a result, Ireland is reliant on the British Royal Air Force for aerial defense. At present, air assets consists of:

  • ATPA: Seven Pilatus PC-9Ms. These training aircraft can be armed with rocket pods and heavy machine guns, but serve primarily for pilot training for the Air Corps.
  • ATA:
    • 2 Casa CN 235: Acquired in 1994 and primarily used for offshore maritime patrol, these transport aircraft are used for airlifting military personnel and for parachuting operations. 57 fully equipped troops or 48 paratroopers can fit inside this turboprop in the matching configuration.
    • 6 AW139: This medium-lift aircraft is capable of carrying up to 14 troops and is mainly used in an army support role.
    • 2 EC135 P2: Primarily used for pilot training, these two small-lift helicopters can also carry up to five troops.
  • GBAD: Ireland has been operating the RBS 70 air defense missile launcher, and from 2019 to 2022 will receive missiles upgraded to the BOLIDE standard. This system forms the backbone of IDF ground-based air defense, but the quantity held is unknown.

Part III: Naval assets

Geography plays a major role in how neutral states ensure their territorial sovereignty on the ground, in the air and on water. While two of the European neutral states, Switzerland and Austria, are land-locked in the middle of Europe, Ireland is an island on the fringe of the continent. Even though none of the naval vessels any of these states operate are conventional in the sense that they are built exclusively for combat, some do have armaments.

The Swiss Armed Forces operates 14 “Patrouillenboot P16” (Patrol Boats), which have gradually been entering service since 2019, replacing the older Patrouillenboot 80 which entered service in 1982. These vessels are deployed on the four border lakes and assist border authorities while being able to be transported over-land. The Patrouillenboot 16 are each equipped with an automated 12.7 mm weapon station. The crew of five soldiers manning the boat each have their personal equipment and each boat can carry up to 15 other individuals.

Until 2006, Austria also owned and operated patrol boats but in that year sent the sole two, the Niederösterreich and the Oberst Brecht, into retirement. Each had a crew of nine and a variety of weaponry ranging from machine guns to anti-tank cannons.

Ireland, as the only one of these three countries with a coastline, operates nine vessels in its naval service. These are one Helicopter Patrol Vessel, four Offshore Patrol Vessels, two Large Patrol Vessels, and two Coastal Patrol Vessels. Each of these ships is equipped with a variety of weapons, including the 76mm Oto Melara naval gun, the Rheinmetal 20mm Cannon (both of which can be used in air-defense), the Browning 12.7mm heavy machine gun, the FN MAG general purpose machine gun, and small arms manned by the crew.

Part IV: Neutral states as international peacemakers

Through conventional military means, neutrality can prevent a country from being pulled into an armed conflict by creating a deterring effect. However, non-military participation in a conflict does not mean inactivity in other fields, such as diplomacy and humanitarianism. Examples in history show a connection between armed neutrality and these aspects of foreign policy. This correlation also shows that the more a country can ensure armed neutrality, the better it is suited to assert itself as a center for international peacemaking and humanitarianism, effectively turning their security policy into their foreign policy as well.

Irish neutrality in question

While Ireland’s neutrality is traditionally a military neutrality, Ireland is itself also unable to carry out air policing duties, much less an autonomous defense, due to not having jet-powered fighter aircraft. The resulting reliance on the Royal Air Force puts into question not only military neutrality but also (aerial) sovereignty. Ireland acknowledges and is considering the purchase of its own jet-powered fighter craft, though not without domestic criticism. This begs the question if neutrality is a policy only countries with a high level of resources can afford. Perhaps for these reasons, Ireland does not regularly host large international organizations or conferences as Austria and Switzerland do.

Atomic energy and nuclear talks in Vienna

Austria’s Air Force is unable to carry out basic air policing duties. While one issue is the number of aircraft available, other factors play a major role. Austria only has 16 Eurofighter pilots, plus 22 flying the soon-to-be phased out Saab 105s. Furthermore, Austria does not have the ability to police its own airspace more than a few hours per day due to budgetary constraints and an insufficient amount of aircraft. This inability to ensure sovereignty over their own territory was the reason behind NATO having to protect Austrian airspace during the NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia. As a result, the credibility of Austria’s neutrality is in jeopardy, especially with recent reports of Austria joining the United States’ “States Partnership Program”, increasing its military links with Washington. While this one example of Austrian military cooperation does not necessarily break neutrality, Austria’s participation in EU battlegroups is another indication of Vienna moving away from traditional military neutrality and more towards models of cooperative defense with regional and global partners.

Despite this shift in security and foreign policy, Austria hosts some well-known international organizations, with the most prominent being the International Atomic Energy Agency. This explains talks over nuclear arms control and the Iran nuclear deal taking place there. The reason as to why Vienna was chosen as the headquarters has geo-political roots, though neutrality undoubtedly had a role to play, especially back in 1957 when Austria’s military stood taller. Yet since the change in practice of neutrality, Austria as a center for international organizations has not developed.

International Switzerland

Neutrality is the core of Switzerland’s foreign policy, giving the country a unique ability to promote peace and stability. The country hosts 40 international organizations, such as the United Nations, and others, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), were founded in Switzerland. While the ICRC was established in 1859, the UN set up its European headquarters in Switzerland in 1966 before Switzerland joined the UN in 2002. Switzerland was also the headquarters for the League of Nations, which recognized Swiss perpetual neutrality in 1920.

To exemplify this connection, Switzerland’s armed forces have been able to defend neutrality during the multiple wars in Europe since the establishment of the federal state in 1848. For example, during the Franco-Prussian War, the Swiss army was mobilized to protect the border during the internment of the Bourbaki army, the first major aid operation by the Swiss Red Cross. During World War One, Switzerland once again mobilized its army while the ICRC began providing humanitarian services, and during World War Two the army was similarly mobilized while Switzerland carried out 219 protecting power mandates for 35 states. Neutral states able to defend their neutrality are credible peace-makers and give their humanitarian organizations credibility in the provision of aid.

Part V: Neutrality in a post-Cold War world

Neutrality was designed in a time of interstate conflict and was never intended to apply to intrastate hostilities. With the creation of regional bodies such as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, the likelihood of interstate conflicts in Europe has decreased and the platforms for dialogue multiplied. Despite a streak of peace on the European continent, military tensions remain in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and even between NATO members. Additionally, military actions by NATO during the Yugoslav wars shows the need for neutral states to maintain armed forces to prevent their territory from being misused by other states for military operations. Failure to do so would damage the credibility of a neutral state’s diplomatic efforts to end the same conflict.

The reduction in military size and capability that neutral states examined here have seen since the end of the Cold War attests to this global shift away from interstate conflict. However, in the context of the conventional threats that remain, neutral states must maintain a minimum capability to guarantee their neutrality, maintain military know-how and continue providing the credibility for humanitarian efforts and peacemaking. The current discussions in Ireland, Austria and Switzerland regarding their air forces attest to the debate of the current necessity of conventional military equipment. However, it is unlikely NATO would allow ‘black holes’ to exist in European airspace, meaning the inability of a neutral state to project sovereignty over its own territory would mean a de-facto reliance on a NATO state. In doing so, neutrality would be damaged and the ability to carry out diplomatic efforts would be heavily diminished due to this neutral state having effectively enabled a military operation in the conflict it may be trying to mediate. Similarly, the inability to control one’s air space during an international conference attended by high-ranking government officials from around the world reduces said neutral state’s suitability to host international dialogue.

As a result, a minimum of military credibility must be maintained by a neutral state to remain neutral, even during times of peace. The acquisition of military equipment is an investment for decades to come in an uncertain future. While it remains to be seen what Ireland assesses as necessary, Austria, when it examined the needs it currently has, calculated 75 jets for aerial defense and 30 to secure the airspace with a minimum of 24 needed to ensure aerial sovereignty in peacetime. The framing of this assessment was a requirement for two airfields with six jets, a further ten for training and eight more which would be in maintenance. It would appear Austria had decided on these 24 when it selected the Eurofighter, but knowingly settled for less than necessary to ensure aerial sovereignty.

Switzerland has calculated eight jets needed to maintain two at any point in the air: Two in the air, two preparing to relieve the two in on patrol, two which had just returned, and two undergoing maintenance. However, if the two in the air are responding to a call such as the verification of an aircraft, an additional two, subsequently eight again, are needed to continue air policing. As such, two “rotations” are needed for permanent air policing duties, equaling 16 jets. However, to ensure sovereignty and reach the minimum for defense, and taking into account other factors such as training and industrial maintenance, the 16 can be doubled to 32. As such, Switzerland is evaluating an acquisition for 30 to 40 aircraft. A minimum of 32 aircraft would mean Switzerland can ensure permanent aerial policing while being able to put at least four jets into the air during times of conflict to create a deterring effect. With this acquisition, the idea is not to have the capacity to fight a long-term conflict, but rather to keep Switzerland out of one while a political solution is found. This is both in the case of a conflict aimed at Switzerland and one in or around Europe, giving Switzerland the ability to mediate and offer diplomatic services credibly. Such an acquisition would serve as a deterrence and ensure neutrality up through the 2050s or even 2060s.

Conclusion: The relevance of neutrality

What the comparisons between these three countries show, is that the more a country is able to assert its neutrality as a security policy, the more it is able to assert neutrality as a foreign and peace policy. Yet effective neutrality is something countries must be able to afford to properly carry out, due to the necessity of possessing the financial resources to acquire the minimum in military capability to guarantee neutrality. However, the real challenge of neutrality is finding relevance in the 21st century; Interstate conflicts, while a possibility, are less likely while intrastate violence with foreign intervention has become more prevalent. With international bodies such as the EU and UN, interstate actors are taking a bigger role in intervening, either militarily or politically.

Neutral states are each unique in how they practice neutrality. While comparisons can be made, the circumstances behind the neutrality of a state are all different. The future is uncertain and when looking at conventional military equipment, the unknown global geo-political situation in deteriorating European and global security environments in the second half of the century must be considered. The decisions a neutral state makes today will determine whether or not it can remain neutral in the future, and that decision will impact their foreign policies.

Image: A Swiss Air Force F/A-18C (Image by Adrian Pingstone)

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.