Murphy's Law: Swiss Air Defense Goes 24/7


February 7, 2021: As of 2021 the Swiss Air Force is to provide 24/7 availability of jet interceptors to deal with any emergency, like a commercial, or any other aircraft, entering Swiss airspace without permission. Before that the F18s were only available during business hours and it took six years to get Swiss voters to agree to the added expense of round-the-clock F-18 availability. It cost the Swiss spending an additional $34 million a year and the hiring of a hundred additional personnel to achieve this new level of readiness.

The cause of this was change was an embarrassing February 2014 incident where Swiss F-18s failed to take off and intercept a hijacked Ethiopian Boeing 767 that was known, for several hours, to be headed their way. Initially two Italian fighters intercepted and escorted the 767 as it entered Italian air space near Sicily. When the 767 entered French air space on its final approach to Switzerland two French fighters took over and as the airliner entered Swiss air space the French fighters stuck with it. Swiss F-18s would normally take over at this point but, as was later explained, budget cuts and noise rules prevented the Swiss F-18s from taking off. Switzerland already had rules in place that would allow French fighters to enter Swiss air space in such an emergency. However, the French fighters could not fire their weapons without Swiss permission. The 767 landed at Geneva and the copilot, who planned to request political asylum, was arrested.

Swiss officials explained that because of budget cuts their air force could no longer afford 24/7 availability of its F-18s for emergencies. Exceptions could be made, but in this case they weren’t. That was apparently because there are also noise restrictions on F-18 use and since the 767 was arriving before 8 AM, the jets taking off would have been in violation of local aircraft noise rules. The Swiss did not see any problem with all this because they knew the hijacker wanted asylum and a French fighter escort would do. The neighbors were not happy with having to cover for the Swiss and there were subsequently similar incidents in other countries that demonstrated how disastrous the old Swiss approach was.

Even before the 2014 incident there was a situation where a Russian airliner with engine trouble entered Swiss air space outside of the air force business hours and no aircraft went to meet the airliner, which crashed killing all on board. The accident investigation revealed that if the airliner had a fighter escort it could have landed safely because the fighter pilots could have provided information the Russian pilot needed to get the plane down safely. Because no such escort was available there was a fatal crash.

The Swiss were not the only ones with this problem. For example, later in 2014 It was revealed that an Austrian Air Force Eurofighter (the Typhoon combat jet) squadron had to reduce its pilot roster by a third because of budget cuts. It wasn’t payroll cuts that caused this, but a much lower budget for jet fuel. There was now insufficient fuel available for all 18 pilots to fly enough hours to maintain their skills. Moreover two of the 12 Typhoons in the squadron have been grounded and used as a source of spare parts. Availability of Typhoons to intercept aerial intruders is also now restricted to what can best be described as “business hours” (eight hours a day for five days a week), similar to the old Swiss system.

The Austrian solution to cuts in the military budget was not unique and twice in 2014 such mandatory economies led to embarrassing incidents where a European air force was unable to send a jet fighter into the air to confront an aerial intruder. Finnish experience with this occurred when Russian warplanes entered Finnish air space and while these intruders were detected, there were no pilots available to take up an F-18 fighter to confront the Russians. The reason given was budgetary problems, specifically an overtime cap that made it impossible to have pilots and ground crews available 24/7 to deal with intruders everywhere on Finland’s long border with Russia.

With the Finns there was also a problem with the extent of its 1,300-kilometer border with Russia and the expense of having fighters available for interception everywhere all the time. During the May 2014 incident another Russian aircraft came close to the border in the south and the Finns intercepted that one. This incident resonated with the U.S. because Finland wanted to join NATO and gain the benefits of the NATO mutual defense pact to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia. NATO membership often involves fellow members sending jet fighters in for “training”. That also sends a message to any local threats.

While Americans, and many Europeans, were appalled at the Swiss attitude, they were a little more understanding of the Finnish situation. The Finns have long sought to placate rather than confront their enormous and often cranky neighbor. Switzerland, on the other hand, has managed to maintain its neutrality for over two centuries. Nevertheless, the Finns don’t like this kind of publicity, which spotlighted their usual attitude towards occasional Russian reminders of why Finland should fear their former master. Finland was part of Russia from 1809 to 1917.

Because of local politics, and the enormous expense of maintaining modern forces, the politics of paying for and using military forces are different in Europe, especially since the end of the Cold War in 1991. The United States was alarmed with these developments and had little success in getting its European allies to organize their armed forces to be more effective. This is becoming a growing problem for the Americans. For a long time, the European nations took for granted that the United States would always show up to supply key military capabilities, just as the Swiss depended on France to put fighters in the air when the Swiss could not.

During the Cold War, which started in 1947, the U.S. accepted these European attitudes, in part because they were not as dysfunctional as they are now. Since the 1990s the U.S. increasingly resented this growing burden and has been uncharacteristically undiplomatic during when discussing logistical and equipment shortcomings of its NATO allies. Switzerland is not a NATO ally but, as the 767 hijacking made clear, there are situations where the Swiss are involved with NATO in military matters whether they want to be or not.

There continue to be examples how this sort of thing works, or doesn’t. The French-led liberation of northern Mali in early 2013 was greatly assisted by French warplanes using smart bombs to attack known terrorist bases. This was devastating and led to the rapid collapse of resistance. But most of the air support would not have been possible without American aerial tankers. There was a similar shortage of aerial reconnaissance aircraft, especially those that could do electronic monitoring (to monitor terrorist communications on the ground). Later in 2013 NATO was under pressure to support the Syrian rebels with air support, as they did the Libyans in 2011. That would not be possible without American assistance and the main reason it didn’t happen was the U.S. refusal to get involved. After the 2014 the U.S. did agree to support NATO air operations over Syria and that continues with American logistical and intel support.

Libya in 2011 was supposed to be just a European operation. NATO was persuaded to take charge of the bombing campaign to fulfill a UN order to stop the Libyan dictator from murdering his own people on a large scale. While NATO agreed to do this they found, once more, that they didn’t have sufficient military capability to get it done with European resources alone. The U.S. still had to supply most of the refueling and intelligence aircraft as well as send more smart bombs because most NATO nations don’t have very large stocks of these weapons.

This was yet another example of how unprepared most NATO members were for actual combat. The situation has gotten worse since 1991. This was immediately seen when there was a need for peacekeeping in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The U.S. was implored to pitch in because the European NATO nations couldn’t handle this themselves. Then came September 11, 2001. NATO members offered to help in Afghanistan and. to a lesser extent, Iraq. But it was more promises than performance because NATO nations were even less prepared for peacekeeping in distant hotspots.

The reluctance of most European nations to send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan was more than just the result of political differences. While Europe has about twice as many active-duty troops as the United States, they have far fewer fit enough to send off to a combat zone. This was a problem first noted in the 1990s, when there was a big demand for peacekeepers in the Balkans. The Europeans couldn't fob this one off on the Americans and had to come up with combat ready troops. The Europeans had a tough time finding soldiers ready and able to go.

European armed forces are full of people in uniform who have a civil service mentality. That is, they think and act like civilians, not soldiers. Belgium discovered, for example, that 14 percent of its troops were obese, compared to 12 percent of the general population and unfit for many of their duties. Much noise is always being made about getting all the troops in good physical shape. While that is possible, it is less likely that the mentality of the troops will be changed.

During the Cold War, Europe got most of its troops via conscription. Young men came in for two or three years and then left. Anywhere from a third to half the troops were long term professionals, in for twenty or more years. But even before the Cold War ended, many of the European military professionals were losing their combat edge. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, there was no longer any compelling reason for a European soldier to think and act like one. It was just a job. A government job that was not, or should not, be terribly demanding.

Europeans spend a much higher proportion of their defense dollars on payroll, leaving little money for training, new equipment, and maintenance. It also meant an older, on average, bunch of troops. Going to war is a young man's game, but Europeans have instead turned their armed forces into another job creation program. There are some exceptions, like Britain and France, demanding that the troops remain fit and maintaining high training standards. Most European nations maintain a few elite infantry units, but these don't add up to much in terms of numbers. Only Britain and France have large "rapid reaction" forces that can be sent overseas on short notice. The United States has the largest such force, and many European nations are trying to expand theirs.

America also has a leadership advantage on the ground. The U.S. has long maintained an "up or out" promotion policy, which forces people out of the service if they are not promoted within a certain amount of time. The U.S. also maintains high standards for new recruits, and maintains more combat capable units. The U.S. is able to field more combat troops, and far more combat power, than over twice as many European soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are on active duty.

The Europeans are still producing more excuses than solutions, and that is not expected to change, no matter how much the Americans complain. In fact, it is getting worse. European nations are rapidly downsizing their air forces. Not just in numbers of aircraft but in money spent on training. For over sixty years the U.S. could depend on European pilots to be well trained and competent. But after 1991 Europeans were cutting flying hours and the U.S. had to adapt to Europeans showing up in modern aircraft with poorly trained pilots. Or, in the case of the Swiss or Finnish Air Force, not showing up at all.




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