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Swiss Air Force logo
Swiss Air Force logo

The Swiss Air Force (German: Schweizer Luftwaffe; French: Forces aériennes suisses; Italian: Forze aeree svizzere; Romansh: Aviatica militara svizra) is the air component of the Swiss Armed Forces, established on 31 July 1914 as part of the army and in October 1936 as an independent service.

In peacetime, Dübendorf is the operational air force headquarters. The Swiss Air Force operates from several fixed bases (see current status) but its personnel are also trained to carry out air operations from temporary highway airstrips. In case of crisis or war, several stretches of road are specially prepared for this option.


The first military aviation in Switzerland took the form of balloon transport, pioneered by Swiss balloonist Eduard Spelterini, but by 1914 there was still little official support for an air corps. The outbreak of World War I changed opinions drastically and cavalry officer Theodor Real was charged with forming a flying corps. He commandeered three civilian aircraft at Bern's airfield and set about training the initial nine pilots at a makeshift airfield close to Wankdorf Stadium, later moving to a permanent home at Dübendorf. Switzerland remained neutral and isolated during the conflict, and the air corps confined its activities to training and exercises, reconnaissance and patrol.[2] It was only with the worsening international situation in the 1930s that an effective air force was established at great cost, with up-to-date Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Morane-Saulnier D‐3800 fighters ordered from Germany, Italy and France respectively (the Moranes were license-built in Switzerland).[3] The Swiss Air Force as an autonomous military service was created in October 1936.[2]

Although Switzerland remained neutral throughout World War II, it had to deal with numerous violations of its airspace by combatants from both sides – initially by German aircraft, especially during their invasion of France in 1940. Zealous Swiss pilots attacked and shot down eleven German aircraft, losing two of their own, before a threatening memorandum from the German leadership forced General Guisan to forbid air combat above Swiss territory.

Later in the war, the Allied bomber offensive sometimes took US or British bombers into Swiss airspace, either damaged craft seeking safe haven or even on occasions bombing Swiss cities by accident. Swiss aircraft would attempt to intercept individual aircraft and force them to land, interning the crews. Only one further Swiss pilot was killed during the war, shot down by a US fighter in September 1944. From September red and white neutrality bands were added to the wings of aircraft to stop accidental attacks on Swiss aircraft by Allied aircraft.[4]

From 1943 Switzerland shot down American and British aircraft, mainly bombers, overflying Switzerland during World War II: six by Swiss air force fighters and nine by flak cannons, and 36 airmen were killed. On 1 October 1943 the first American bomber was shot near Bad Ragaz: Only three men survived. The officers were interned in Davos, airmen in Adelboden. The representative of the U.S. military in Bern, U.S. military attaché Barnwell R. Legge, instructed the soldiers not to flee so as to allow the U.S. Legation to coordinate their escape attempts, but the majority of the soldiers thought it was a diplomatic ruse or did not receive the instruction directly.

On 1 October 1944 Switzerland housed 39,670 internees in all: 20,650 from Italy, 10,082 from Poland, 2,643 from the United States, 1,121 from the United Kingdom (including five Australians), 822 from the Soviet Union and 245 from France. In September the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was commissioned by the U.S. supreme command to organize the escapes of 1,000 American internees, but the task was not effectively accomplished before late winter 1944/45. Soldiers who were caught after their escape from the internment camp, were often detained in the Wauwilermoos internment camp near Luzern.[5][6][7]

Official Swiss records identify 6,501 airspace violations during the course of the war, with 198 foreign aircraft landing on Swiss territory and 56 aircraft crashing there.

Axalp. With the threat of WW2 and the possible need for the army and civilian population to retreat into the mountains (Reduit) as proposed by General Guisan, it was clear that the army air force needed the ability to attack enemy ground forces in the mountains. To practice this Axalp was selected. After WW2 ground attack by r jet aircraft was practiced at Axalp, including strafing and bombing exercises.

During the Cold War, military liaison officers from western, eastern and non-aligned nations were invited to the screenings. Nowadays Axalpfliegerschiessen ("Airshow Axalp") is a performance by the luftwaffe for anyone interested. It is the only event where everybody may have a look at a live exercise at 1,700 m (5,600 ft) above sea level. The use of helicopter ops at high altitudes, search & rescue and firefighting demonstrations also have become a large part of the Axalp air show.[8][9]

After World War II, the service was renamed Airforce and Anti-Aircraft Command (Schweizerische Flugwaffe Kommando der Flieger und Fliegerabwehrtruppen). In 1966, this became a separate service independent from the Army, under its present name Schweizer Luftwaffe.[10]

With the prospect of a future World War 3 involving nuclear weapons, jet aircraft were purchased: 75 De Havilland Vampires in 1950, followed by over 100 De Havilland Venoms and the same number of Hawker Hunters. The Venoms served until 1983; Vampires until 1990 and Hunters even until 1994. In the late 1940's Switzerland purchased the North American P-51 Mustang from US surplus WW2 stock. The aircraft initially was intended as a stop-gap solution for the Swiss army in order to maintain a defence force during a time when the outdated Bf 109E's and Swiss built D-3801 Moranes were being phased out but the license production of the British designed Dh-100 Vampires and Dh-112 Venoms was not in full swing.

At the end of the 1950s, reflecting both the threat of possible invasion by the Soviet Union and a nuclear warfare, Swiss military doctrine changed to mobile defence that included missions outside its territory, in order to defeat stand-off attacks and nuclear threats, including the possibility of defensive employment of air-delivered nuclear weapons.[11] However the inability to field a force capability to carry out such missions led to the return of traditional "protection of own territory" doctrine.[12] Meanwhile, the army started preparing ad hoc airbases in the mountains, with sections of highway strengthened to act as runways and hangars carved out of the mountains.

In 1954 the first Air Radar Recruit School activated, the first early warning radar systems were installed and the concept of command & control facilities at mountain summits was introduced; leading to acquisition of the FLORIDA early warning and command guidance system in 1965 followed by the current FLORAKO system in 2003. At the same time, ground-based air defence (GBAD) projects were initiated such as radar-equipped medium-caliber guns with an integrated 63 Superfledermaus (Superbat) fire control system' as well as the BL-64 ‘Bloodhound’ air defence missile system (1964–1999).

After the prototypes EFW N-20 and FFA P-16, Switzerland did not invest in development combat aircraft anymore. In 1964 the procurement of the Dassault Mirage 3 fighters (1964–2002) caused a scandal due to severe budget overruns. The commander, the chief of the general staff and the minister of defence were forced to resign, followed by a complete restructuring of the air force and air defence units in 1968 and leading to separation of users and procurement officials.

In February 1968, the airfield brigade 32 was founded as part of a reorganization. The airbase group comprised all military airfields in Switzerland, around 16,000 members of the army.[13] Built up by a

  • brigadestaff, airfield regiments Valais (1), Berner Oberland (2), Central Switzerland and Ticino (3) and a nationwide operating Light airfield division.

In combination with the Bundesamt für Militärflugplätze (BAMF), this organization, together with its ZV Central Administration in Dübendorf, constituted a robust structure, which could be activated by mobilization within 48 hours.[14]

The Patrouille Suisse aerobatics team was founded in 1964, the 50th anniversary year of Swiss army aviation.

In 1969, airforce logistics and airdefence were reassigned into brigades, the Armed Forces Meteo Group and Avalanche Rescue Service came under air force and air defence command and the Para Reconnaissance Company was established.

In the 1970s major manoeuvres with over 22,000 participants took place. A new air defence concept was also introduced in which the air superiority fighter in interceptor role stood central. In 1974 the first 2 Northrop F-5 Tiger fighters were tested and in 1978 the first F-5 Tiger fighter/interceptor squadron became ops. The F-5 is currently still ops but is scheduled to be replaced in 2018.

In the late 1980s changing political and military world situations implied the need of multirole aircraft in the luftwaffe. After evaluation, the performance of the F/A-18 Hornet was decisive in its selection. Designed for carrier-borne ops, it was optimal suited to operate from very short runways with steep take-offs. Its radar allowed detection of multiple targets and simultaneously engaging with medium-range air to air missiles.

Between 1996 and 1999, 34 licence-built Hornets left the assembly lines at Emmen. As the F/A-18 size is larger than either the Mirage III or Tiger II the caverns in the mountains used to protect the aircraft had to be enlarged, a continuing process as of 2011.

The 100th anniversary of the Swiss Air Force has been celebrated in 2014 with the airshow Air14 at Payerne.[15]

Current (2018) situation

Switzerland is a small country which has always kept its neutrality. Therefore its air component is also limited in size and not capable of fighting a long term full scale air conflict. So the main Swiss Luftwaffe mission is guaranteeing Swiss air sovereignity and air defence throughout the country. This is achieved by:

  • maintaining general airspace control preventing unauthorised airspace intrusion through round the clock radar coverage (to be expanded by activation of ground based air defence (GBAD) units)
  • a 24/7 air policing as an active airspace protection.

Its secondary missions are executing airlift, reconnaissance operations, and gathering and interpreting intelligence for the Swiss political and military leadership.

Through the years, the Swiss luftwaffe traditionally had been a militia-based service, including its pilots. Its inventory existed of approximately 450 aircraft whose operational service life overlapped several eras. Beginning with its separation from the army in 1966 the luftwaffe has been reduced in size (currently about 230 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft) moving towards a small professional cadre with fewer reserves and conscripted supporting personnel.[16] Currently the Swiss air force has a peacetime strength of 1,600 professional military and about 20,000 reservists on call.[1]

Its air defence consists of 30 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets and 53 Northrop F-5 Tiger IIs (110 purchased in 1978–85).[17] The F/A-18 pilots are professional military; the F-5 pilots however are reservists (mostly air- or freight-liner pilots with an F-5 rating). During reserve duty periods they are assigned to military duties to refresh their operational live flying training and rating. In 2008, the Swiss F-18 component reached its 50,000 flight hour milestone.[18] Due to the RUAG Upgrade 21 (UG21) programme between 2004 and 2009 and the Mid-Life Update (MLU)[19] its operational lifecycle will be guaranteed until 2022.

From 2011 the air force intended to start the Partial F-5 Tiger Replacement programme for 22 new aircraft with the JAS 39 Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale as replacement candidates.[20][21] In November 2011 the Swiss government announced its decision to buy 22 Gripen New Generation fighters.[22][23][24] The contract for the 22 aircraft was signed at 3.1 billion Swiss francs.[25] On 25 August 2012, the order was confirmed by both the Swedish and Swiss authorities.[26][27][28]

The first new aircraft would be delivered in 2018 and the intention was to lease 11 current generation (eight JAS 39Cs/3 JAS 39Ds) Gripen fighters from 2016 to 2020 in order to train Swiss fighter pilots while avoiding expensive upkeep of the F-5s. However, in a national referendum in May 2014 a majority of Swiss rejected the purchase of the Gripen]].[29] This included continued operation of the Patrouille Suisse on F-5E.[30][31]

To reduce the risk of a negative referendum outcome the Swiss defence ministry revised its procurement strategy.[32] With its Air 2030 programme [33] The Swiss government now opted for a planning order for a combined purchase of new fighters together with long-range groundbased air defences (GBAD). This programme valued at CHF8 billion ($8.1 billion), the biggest arms procurement programme in modern Swiss history. Defence minister Viola Amherd unveiled results of studies tackling the defence procurement package: fighters replacing both the current F-5 Tigers and F/A-18 Hornets scheduled to be retired in the 2020s as well as a reconfigured GBAD.

Armasuisse, the Federal Office for Defence Procurement, asked several firms to submit pricing for 40 aircraft including missile armament and logistics as well as an assessment of the number of aircraft necessary to fulfil Swiss needs and kicked off the competition for 5 types of combat aircraft under consideration (Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-35A and Saab Gripen E) at Payerne airbase. With a reconfigured GBAD system covering appx 15,000 km2 in the densely populated Swiss plateau the balance between fighter aircraft and ground-based air defence would be ensured for the next decades. The Air 2030 programme is still in progress.

On 10 December 2010, the last 20 outdated Aérospatiale Alouette III were replaced by two VIP configuration Eurocopter EC135s and 18 Eurocopter EC635s.[16] The first EC-635 was delivered in 2008.[34]

In peacetime the air defence radar coverage is maintained on 24/7 basis.[35] The aviator corps however is incapable in maintaining a matching state of readiness due to limited budget and lack of staff available and is operated from 06:00-22:00 local time only. This became painfully clear as the Swiss luftwaffe was unable to respond to the Ethiopian Airlines ET702 hijacking in 2014 which occurred outside routine operating hours.[36][37] Agreements with Italy and France in particular enabled fighters from both air forces to enter Swiss airspace to handle the threat.

The aim for the future is implementing a 24-hour Quick Reaction Alert readiness of two armed F/A-18 fighters by the end of 2020.[38]

A major problem in defending the Swiss airspace is the size of the country. The Swiss maximum extension is only 348 kilometres (216 mi). Commercial airliners may pass over in about 15–20 minutes. Jetfighters even in less time but noise-abatement issues traditionally caused problems for the luftwaffe because of the tourist industry.[39] Due to these reasons, the Swiss luftwaffe is currently increasingly participating in air defence training exercises with many NATO counterparts. These exercises have covered the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the Euro 2008 football championships, and the annual World Economic Forum.[39]

Operational structure

The 2018 order of battle is as follows:[40][41] Also see: Swiss Air Force aircraft squadrons

  • Bern-Belp airport international airport Armed Forces Airlift Service (LTDB). LTDB is under admin command of Meiringen airbase and is operating Dassault Falcon 900EX, Cessna Citation Excel, Beech 1900D, Beech 350C Super King Air, Eurocopter Super Puma and Eurocopter EC635 (VIP flights)
  • Alpnach airbase (airbase 2) is a helicopter airlift/logistic base and maintenance unit Air Transport Wing 2 with airlift squadrons 6 and 8 both operating AS332M1 Super Puma, Eurocopter EC635 and AS532UL Cougar Airtransport Det 2
  • Dübendorf airfield is under admin command of Alpnach airbase and hosting Swiss Air Force Command Air Defence & Direction Centre (air defence C3 airops center) Skyguide joint mil/civ airtraffic control Air Transport Wing 3 with airlift squadrons 3 and 4 both operating AS332M1 Super Puma, Eurocopter EC635 and AS532UL Cougar Air Transport Detachment 3
  • Locarno airfield (airbase 4) is a training, logistics and supporting base Luftwaffe flight school Competence and simulator center for PC-6,7 and 9 aircraft Specops Command Parachute Reconnaissance school Supporting drone and anti aircraft artillery ops Supporting international peacekeeping missions abroad
  • Emmen airbase (airbase 7) Airlift squadron 7 flying Pilatus PC-6 Airtarget squadron 12 flying Pilatus PC-9/F-5E Patrouille Suisse flying F-5 Tiger Pilot Training School flying Pilatus PC-21 UAV Command 84 with Drone squadron 7 flying ADS-95 GBAD training center Base Support squadron 7 Log Support squadron 7
  • Payerne airbase (airbase 11), an air defence base hosting Air Transport Wing 1 with airlift squadrons 1 and 5 both flying AS332M1 Super Puma, Eurocopter EC635 and AS532UL Cougar Air Transport Det 1 Fighter Wing 11 with fighter squadrons 6 flying F-5 Tiger, 17 and 18 both flying F/A-18C/D Base Det 11 Fighter Wing 14 with fighter squadron 19 flying F-5 Tiger Airbase Detachment 14
  • Meiringen airbase (Airbase 13) is an air defence base hosting Fighter Wing 13 with fighter squadron 11 flying F/A-18C/D Airbase Det 13

Non-Ops airfields

  • Ambri Closed. Former Hawker Hunter cavern base
  • Buochs Closed but kept in reserve (sleeping) base. Former Dassault Mirage 3S cavern base
  • Frutigen Closed Reduit base
  • Interlaken Closed. Former H Hunter Reduit and maintenance base
  • Lodrino Closed. Former helicopter and maintenance base
  • Mollis Closed. Former H Hunter and F-5 Tiger fighterbase
  • Münster Closed Reduit base
  • Raron Closed H Hunter and Alouette 2/3 cavern base
  • Reichenbach Closed Reduit base
  • Saanen-Gstaat Closed Venom and Alouette 2/3 cavern base
  • Sarnen Closed Alouette 2/3 base
  • St Stephan Closed H Hunter cavern base
  • Turtmann Closed Reduit H Hunter and F-5 Tiger cavern base
  • Ulrichen Closed Reduit H Hunter base
  • Zweisimmen Closed reservebase

During the past 35 years, Swiss military and civil airspace control depended on the FLORIDA (FLugsicherungs Operations Radar IDentifikation Alarm – Flight Ops, Radar Identifying, and Alerting) air defense system.

Since its phasing out, however, the Swiss airspace control and defence is being carried out by the THALES Raytheon FLORAKO. This system is being operated from 4 fixed locations on the Pilatus, Scopi, Weisshorn and Weissfluh mountains.

At least one of these Command, Control, and Communications (C3) facilities is always connected to the Air Defence & Direction Center (ADDC or air ops centre) at Dübendorf Air Base and fully operational on-line on a 24/7 basis, monitoring Swiss airspace. Depending on the international situation, more facilities will be manned; in case of crisis or war (ADDC and 4 facilities operational) radarcoverage will be extended far beyond the Swiss boundaries. Each of these facilities is capable of making all battle management decisions in case of elimination of the ADDC or other facilities.[19]

The first FLORAKO unit activated in 2003 and the operational lifetime of this hi-tech system is guaranteed by its manufacturers for at least 25 years. The system consists of:

  • A communication system KOMSYS. Integrating element of all geographically divided parts of the FLORAKO system uniting speech, data communications, and system commands in a single data network.
  • A radar station FLORES. Consisting of standard high-power search radars, advanced radars (search mode, high-update ratio, and special functions), and civil authority mono-pulse secondary radars. The 4 radar stations are the main data sources and are complemented by existing military and civil radar data.
  • A radar layer-system RALUS. Translating the data automatically into flight paths and producing a complete civil-military air picture for all authorities.
  • A warning message system LUNAS-EZ. AirOps Centres are the combining factors between the FLORAKO-system with real-time data (air picture, planning, and environmental data) and its military users. Workstations are identically configured and built accordingly to latest ergonomics, visual colour high resolution, menu guidance, and known user environment. The Dübendorf Air Defence & Direction Centre – as well as the air operations units in the Alps – are equally equipped, thus assuring full-time operational redundancy in producing the actual air-picture; permanent defence of airspace; early warning; command and control; coordination of civil and military air traffic and air policing.
  • The Military-Civil Airspace Management System MICAMS. This secondary system provides a computing backup for flexible airspace use for both civil and military flight security.

The radar system may eventually be completed by 2 mobile TAFLIR (TAktische FLIeger Radars – Tactical Flight Radars). These Ground Master 200 type AN/MPQ-64 radars are a variant of the Northrop Grumman AN/TPS-75 and are deployable in areas of difficult terrain or where specific coverage is needed. Peacetime TAFLIR deployment locations are at Dübendorf Air Base and Emmen. In time of crisis or at war they can be deployed anywhere.[19]

Air surveillance in Switzerland (including the airspace of Liechtenstein) is also called Permanent Air Surveillance (PlÜ); uninterrupted 24/365 coverage with the FLORAKO system, wherein the Identifications Officer (IDO) and Track Monitor (TM) monitor and represent the general Recognized Air Picture.

The luftwaffe has several operational centres. In peacetime, the primary military command centre is at Dübendorf Air Base joint with the civilian air traffic control Skyguide. The locations of the other operational centres are classified. The command centres are part of the unit "Einsatz Luftwaffe," the chief of which is directly subordinate to the commander of the Air Force. It consists of the operations center of the Air Force, redundant direct connections to the emergency organizations (air rescue and federal police), as well as to the 2 Skyguide air traffic centers (Geneva and Zurich) and to the relevant military and civilian air traffic control centers of neighboring countries.

Currently the sky is continuously monitored, but intervention resources are usually available only during 06:00 to 22:00 local time, every day. Usually, increased availability of resources is limited to major exercises, international conferences (WEF), or crises (e.g. the Libyan Civil War in 2011). This heightened state is called PlÜ + (PlÜ PLUS) or ILANA. The Swiss Federal Assembly has adopted a requirement that armed interceptors are to be ready 24 hours all day. Meeting the parliamentary requirement had require increased operations at two air bases as well as modifications to civilian sites Geneva Airport and Zurich Airport. This objective is expected being met by the end of 2020.[38]

Air policing is the main peacetime activity of the Swiss luftwaffe. The Air Force distinguishes 2 types of mission, live mission (observation, identification) and hot mission (intervention).


The Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) is currently headquartered at Emmen airbase. Formerly it used the fixed emplacement BL-64 "Bloodhound" missile system. The current system uses three shorter ranged but mobile systems which may be deployed anywhere.

  • Rapier a mobile 10 km range surface-to-air system. Operated as towed four-missile launchers and related command and control vehicles - 40 units in service.
  • FIM-92 Stinger man portable 4.8 km range shoulder-launched infrared surface-to-air missile with a related Stinger Alert short range radar - 96 units in service.
  • Oerlikon 35 mm twin cannon 4 km range towed anti-aircraft artillery operating with a Skyguard fire control radar with 15 km detection range. 24 units in service.

The Swiss luftwaffe supports third party organisations with equipment and staff. It provides the civilian radar Skyguide with FLORAKO radardata enabling safe air traffic management. Luftwaffe helicopters and drones regularly conduct surveillance flights for the Border Guard Corps GWK, for general surveillance at major events and search flights (SAR) for national police and Rega (air rescue). The Fire Department also uses its drones and helicopters with FLIR to locate forestfires and to extinguish them with Bambibuckets. 3 helicopters supported Swisscoy in the KFOR, some supported in large-scale events for relief abroad (e.g. Sumatra after the tsunami). The luftwaffe supports the Federal Office of Public Health, National Emergency Operations Centre and conducts regular ENSI flights collecting airquality data and radioactivity measurements; it also does parabolic F-5 flights as part of the ARES program of the ETH Zurich and other research institutions. The luftwaffe also modified all diplomatic flights outside the opening times of the FOCA and represents the REGA (Swiss Air Rescue) communication systems.[51]

The future

Equipment and designations

[62] [63] [64] [65]

Former used radarsystems

Former used anti-aircraft systems

Some systems have also been offered by Swiss and foreign companies to be trialled by the Swiss luftwaffe but these have never been purchased.

  • Fliegerabwehrpanzer 68 - Swiss origin - 1958/1964
  • RSA missiles - Swiss origin - 1946/ 1958
  • RSD 58 missiles - Swiss origin - 1952/1958
  • RSE Kriens missiles - Swiss origin - 1958/1966
  • MOWAG Shark - Swiss/UK origin - 1981/1983 with French Crotale missiles and the UK twin AAA Wildcat 2×30mm cannon.

The luftwaffe has a number of aerobatic teams and solo display aircraft that are used to represent the Swiss Air Force at events around Europe:

Swiss military aircraft are identified by a role prefix and number, the prefix or code identifies the role and the serial numbers the type or variant, the system was introduced in 1936.[66][67]

This is followed by a number having from two to four digits [68]

In four digit numbers, the first digit identifies the aircraft type. The next three are the sub-type and individual aircraft, with the first and sometimes second for the subtype; and the third and sometimes fourth for the individual aircraft, In the following examples, "x" identifies the individual aircraft:

  • Mirage IIIBS = J-200x
  • Mirage IIIDS = J-201x
  • Mirage IIIRS = R-21xx
  • Mirage IIIC = J-22xx
  • Mirage IIIS = J-23xx
  • F-5E = J-30xx (serials previously used for the FFA P-16)
  • F-5F = J-32xx
  • F/A-18C = J-50xx
  • F/A-18D = J-52xx

3 digit numbers Most aircraft have three numbers. These follow a broadly similar pattern to the four-digit numbers, although there are exceptions.

Transport aircraft have a first digit of 3 for helicopters and 7 for fixed wing aircraft.

2 digit numbers Target drones have only two numbers.

Radio callsigns

  • Bambini-Code – a tactical radio code used from the 1940s to the 1990s
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