NATO or Neutrality

As Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO, Switzerland draws closer to the military pact, buys expensive F-35 fighter jets and seeks new forms of cooperation.

BERN/BRUSSELS (Own report) – As Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO, Switzerland is preparing to draw closer to the western military pact. Switzerland is seeking “new forms of cooperation” with NATO, Defense Minister Viola Amherd declared. This would be possible despite the country’s official neutrality. Concrete proposals for expanding the cooperation will be submitted in September. Notwithstanding its neutrality, Switzerland has been cooperating with NATO since the 1950s, mainly informally, at first, and formally only after joining the Western alliance’s Partnership for Peace program in 1996. “Common tactics, techniques and procedures for missions” have long been established, as was noted on the occasion of the participation of a Swiss fighter squadron in a current air force exercise of NATO member countries. The purchase of F-35 fighter jets, decided by Bern in the summer 2021 – which is being met with protests – also serves to draw the country closer to NATO. The Ukraine war facilitates legitimizing the rapprochement to NATO.

“Western Neutrality”

Not withstanding its traditional neutrality, Switzerland has always maintained beneficial relations with NATO, even though “informal contacts” – “virtually at all levels” – have been the rule since the 1950s, according to an survey of the development of mutual relations.[1] However, Bern has always rejected official agreements – requested from time to time by the USA – with NATO on joint actions in case of a war against the Warsaw Treaty countries. The “overriding mutual interest of preventing the Swiss territory from becoming a potential axis of invasion for the … Warsaw Treaty armed forces” had, at an early stage, already led to “informal” agreements, for example on “connecting points” along the German-Suisse border “for closing the ranks of neighboring units,” or “for exchanging radar data.” Later, neutral or non-aligned states began noticing, a “convergence of Swiss and particularly US-American positions” “on various occasions.” This is why Switzerland has always been considered a “western neutral.”

“Integrated into the Western System of Weapons Transfers”

Beyond its contacts to NATO, Switzerland has had “intensive relations, in every respect” to individual NATO-members, at least since the 1950s, according to the survey. This not only applies to training cooperation, for which particularly Swiss officers regularly traveled to NATO countries, but also to armament cooperation. Already due simply to its technological dependence, Switzerland had experienced “integration into the western system of weapons transfers,” according to the authors of a study on the country’s arms industry during the decades of the Cold War. This, in practice, has systematically “undermined” the political concept of neutrality.[2] Switzerland has also always cooperated closely with NATO states at the level of its intelligence services. It has become known that the P-26 clandestine organization, for example, which was supposed to organize the underground resistance in case of the occupation of Switzerland by an enemy – similar to Gladio structures in the Federal Republic of Germany [3] – had cooperated with British intelligence services.[4] In February 2020, it was revealed that the Suisse Crypto AG, which produced encoding technology, was temporarily owned by the BND and the CIA, enabling both services to conduct worldwide wiretapping. ( reported.[5])

“Common Tactics”

Despite its neutrality, Switzerland intensified its cooperation with NATO in 1996 by joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace” (PfP) program. Within its framework, Swiss armed forces have been participating in joint maneuvers with NATO countries. Of course this is nothing completely new. Since 1981, flight squadron 11 of the Swiss Air Force has been attending NATO’s Tiger Meet, where numerous NATO members participate in an air force exercise. On the occasion of this year’s NATO Tiber Meet in Araxos Greece – which finishes tomorrow (Friday) – it has been reported that the fact that “Switzerland is a non-NATO member plays no role,” “common tactics, techniques and procedures for missions” have long been developed.[6] In 1999, Switzerland’s dispatching a company-sized logistics unit to Kosovo is described as a “quantum leap (in) Switzerland’s relations to NATO. Today there are 180 Swiss soldiers stationed there – around three-times more than their Germans counterparts.[7] Beginning in 2014, cooperation between Switzerland and NATO became more complicated with NATO’s more accentuated focus on a power struggle with Russia. Observers began noticing overtures toward a new “convergence” already in 2017.[8]

The War as an Opportunity

Currently, Bern is using the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to further upgrade its relationship to NATO. Last week, Swiss Defense Minister Viola Amherd visited the United States and held negotiations with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks about eventual “possibilities for even closer cooperation in security policy.” Details were not made public.[9] Amherd also advanced the prospect of a more intensive cooperation with NATO. The focus is on “new forms of cooperation; “Swiss neutrality still leaves “a certain amount of room for maneuver.”[10] Regular meetings not only of politicians, but also of military commanders from both sides are in discussion, it was reported. An official report, suggesting concrete options, is scheduled to be presented by the end of September. Only formal membership in NATO is considered incompatible with neutrality, and therefore out of the question – at least for the time being. Opinion polls show that the war in Ukraine and its media coverage has boosted the approval rating for a closer NATO cooperation from a long-term 37 percent average, to a current 56 percent. Even becoming a NATO member, which until now only 21 percent favored, is today favored by 33 percent of the Swiss population.

Partner for Many Years

Switzerland’s continued rapprochement to NATO had been prepared long before the beginning of the war in Ukraine. This is evident through Bern’s decision to procure 36 US-made F-35 jet fighters. The official purchase price for the aircraft – notorious for its glitches – is at CHF 6 billion, including any eventual overhead until 2060, officially estimated to total CHF 15.5 billion. Critics part from the premise that the price will significantly continue to rise over the next few years.[11] In Washington, Amherd declared that, in light of the fact that not only the USA, but divers other European NATO members have purchased the F-35,”this means that Switzerland will be acquiring reliable partners for many years – until 2060.” “That provides for an exchange, a cooperation, that will be further intensified.”[12] In the USA, Amherd also met with representatives of the US arms industry, including Lockheed-Martin, the producer of the F-35s and Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Patriot missile defense system, which Switzerland also procured, because they have pledged counter-deals in Switzerland worth up to CHF 4.2 billion.

Jet Fighters vs. Democracy

The only thing standing in the way of these deals in the billions to reinforce relationships between Switzerland and the USA and NATO is an initiative to halt the procurement of the F-35s. The initiative, launched by the “Group for a Switzerland without an Army” (GSoA), points out that the F-35s “were solely developed for deployment in wars of aggression.” For “air policing missions,” as are planned for Switzerland, they are “massively oversized and unsuitable.”[13] Besides, “the US intelligence services are always sitting in the cockpits of these aircraft,” they explain. The initiative is collecting signatures for a referendum on the purchase – a common procedure in Switzerland. Defense Minister Amherd is calling for quickly finalizing the purchase agreement – which is completed and lacks only the signatures – before the referendum can be held, one “should not wait” she was quoted to have said.[14] It is not yet known whether the Swiss government will agree with her position, granting ties to NATO a greater priority than to democracy.


[1] Mauro Mantovani: Die Schweiz und die NATO vor der Partnerschaft für den Frieden, 1949-1995. In: Politorbis. Zeitschrift zur Aussenpolitik. No. 61. Bern 2016. S. 23-26.

[2] Monika Dommann, Sibylle Marti: Kriegsmaterial im Kalten Krieg. Rüstungsgüter in der Schweiz zwischen Militär, Industrie, Politik und Öffentlichkeit. In: Itinera 47. Beiheft zur Schweizerischen Zeitschrift für Geschichte. Bern 2020. S. 6-23.

[3] See also Eine Untergrundarmee.

[4] Beziehungen zwischen der Organisation P-26 und analogen Organisationen im Ausland. Administrativuntersuchung P-26/Gladio. Bericht an den Bundesrat. Neuenburg/Bern, 5. August 1991.

[5] See also Ausspähen unter Freunden (II) and BND Involved in Intelligence Operations Creating the EU.

[6] Matthias Bärlocher: Nato zeigt sich begeistert über „Partner Switzerland”. 18.05.2022.

[7] Christian Nünlist: Die Schweiz und der Wandel der NATO-Partnerschaftspolitik, 1996-2016. In: Politorbis. Zeitschrift zur Aussenpolitik. No. 61. Bern 2016. S. 93-96.

[8] Henrik Larsen: Die Schweiz und die NATO: Neue Konvergenz. In: Bulletin 2019 zur schweizerischen Sicherheitspolitik. Zürich 2019. S. 55-73.

[9] Christian Weisflog: „Die Schweiz gewinnt die USA für viele Jahre als zuverlässige Partnerin”. Neue Zürcher Zeitung 14.05.2022.

[10] Fabian Fellmann: Amherd will nun näher an die Nato. 13.05.2022.

[11] Hauptseite.

[12] Fabian Fellmann: Amherd will nun näher an die Nato. 13.05.2022.

[13] Stop F-35!

[14] Fabian Fellmann: Amherd will nun näher an die Nato. 13.05.2022.