Modern Swiss Army: Its Weapons Include More Than a Knife

United Press International

“The Swiss have no army,” Nicolo Machiavelli said 500 years ago. “They are an army.” It’s more true today than ever.

Back when the Florentine statesman wrote, men went into battle on horse and on foot. In Switzerland these days, some still would. Others would go by bicycle.

Make no mistake: This country has the latest and best defense that money can buy.

Camouflaged steel doors slide open to reveal huge Alpine caverns, and out roll jet fighters and missiles.


Powerful Tanks, Cannons

Down in the valley are some of the most powerful tanks and cannons available in the world.

As many as 625,000 men can be mobilized in 48 hours and 1 million in a week. All Swiss men keep automatic rifles and ammunition at home, adhering to the militia concept of a “people’s army” in which there are only 1,500 regular soldiers.

About 2.5 million army guns have been handed out so far this century and are still in private homes. Not one has been used in a crime.


Each year, 400,000 men take part in military refresher maneuvers.

All this in a nation of just 6.5 million people.

But one thing hasn’t changed over the centuries, and that is the Swiss army’s use of horses and mules. There are also several thousand troops in three “bicycle regiments.”

There are good reasons why horses, mules and bikes play a big role in national defense:


--Horses and mules can withstand temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, which is normal in the Alps in winter.

--They can carry a rider and up to 220 pounds of equipment over the mountains and through deep snow.

--Bicycles are quiet, and a rider can carry twice as much gear as a man on foot.

--Most of Switzerland is mountainous terrain, where trucks would generally be useless. Blizzards and fog are common, making it impossible to fly helicopters.


In the 1930s, the Swiss army had 60,000 full-time horses and mules serving in the mountain infantry. Today there are only 140 such “regular” animals, which are used for training.

But there are 9,000 horses and mules in the reserves, with the army paying the owners a part of the costs of upkeep.

“This is, of course, a much more practical, as well as less expensive, way of doing things,” a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

When called up for their annual military service--which ranges from one to four weeks, depending on the animal’s age--the owners report along with their horses and mules.


“Pack horses and mules are dependable in all weather, have impressive infantry battle ability and are a valuable link between people and army,” said Walter Zimmermann, a three-star general and a division commander.

Writing in the January issue of the Army Association magazine, Zimmermann extolled the vital role still played by animals in Swiss defense.

“Fighting in Afghanistan is an example of how specially trained horseback mountain troops can get around blockades guarding the valleys,” he wrote.

Difficult Terrain


Zimmermann noted the ability of horses and mules to operate in all kinds of weather and in the most difficult terrain.

“Nothing can prevent these units from carrying out their transport duties--not night or fog, not blizzards or storms,” he said. “And also important is the comradeship between animal and soldier.”

A top veterinary surgeon in Zurich recently declined officer’s rank because he wanted to be with his horse. That meant remaining a corporal.

As for bicycles, the Swiss army first introduced them in 1888. The “Bicycle Troops” were officially formed in 1891. By 1924 there were 24 bicycle companies, with the riders mainly used as messengers.


Nowadays the army has three bicycle regiments numbering several thousand men--the Defense Ministry will not give the exact figure.

Training ends with a 125-mile “bicycle march” with the pedal-power reservists carrying 88 pounds of equipment more than 75 miles a day.

“Bicycles are quiet, can be used when visibility is almost zero and are an ideal attack weapon,” the Defense Ministry said.

They are used for three main purposes--defense, delaying action and attack.


A soldier wearing full battle dress and riding a bike may at first look amusing. But that anti-tank missile on his shoulder is no joke.