International Report:

Switzerland's defence industry continues to punch above its weight

Switzerland's longstanding neutrality has made it the ideal locale for a variety of international institutions. The U.N.'s predecessor League of Nations was headquartered there, and today the country pays host to the World Trade Organization, IATA, the Red Cross and the World Economic Forum, which is held each year in Davos.

Less well-known is the fact that Switzerland has long backed-up its neutrality with a professional military, that pound-for-pound is arguably one of the best in Europe. Switzerland's 140,000 man armed forces are more than twice the size of Canada's, despite the fact that it has just one fourth the population.

Switzerland's "tough but neutral," reputation goes way back. No less an authority than Machiavelli, once called that country's troops the toughest anywhere. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the more than $3 billion that Switzerland spends on its armed forces each year goes toward procurement from a wide and effective network of domestic defence, research and aerospace players, many of whom have strong Canadian connections.

A leader in protected mobility
One of the Swiss defence industry names that Canadians are most familiar with is Mowag GmbH., which operates an armored vehicle plant in the country's northeast corner. Mowag, which used to be owned by General Motors Canada, but is now operated as a division of General Dynamics Land Combat Systems Group, employs more than 500 people at its Kreuzlingen plant and has more than 12,000 vehicles in service worldwide.

Among the vehicle brands made there are the Piranha, (known in the U.S. as the Stryker), the Duro multi-purpose vehicle and the Eagle, which is looking to carve a niche in the Humvee category. Mowag also does a considerable amount of systems integration work, notably mounting ancillary devices such as 50-caliber machine guns, radio antennae, or anti-aircraft equipment on its vehicles. "Users are asking for increasingly lighter vehicles that can carry bigger payloads," says Heinz Konig, the company's executive director in charge of marketing and sales. Other major challenges include a longstanding bid to move toward electric drivelines, and to install reactive armor or that would be effective against newer forms of RPGs.

Mowag's workhorse unit, the Piranha, (which is also produced under license in Canada at General Dynamic's London plant) is a six or eight wheeled unit, whose primary purpose is troop transport. The highly versatile unit has a built in propeller which turns it into a mini-boat when the situation requires it. The armor can stop munitions up to 7.62 mm, making it useful for UN and other peacekeeping operations. Company officials say that the Piranha is one of the most effective in a crowded category, which includes a variety of European and North American competitors.

While most of the Mowag vehicles are now produced outside of Switzerland, the Kreuzlingen plant remains an R&D hub. Swiss labor is among the most productive in the world, but unit costs are high, so company officials have been focusing on designing innovative products, which if accepted, will lead to the R&D money reverting back to the Swiss plant.

Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (RAM) Defence
Switzerland is also taking the lead in developing defences against rockets, artillery and mortars, which are among the biggest challenges facing modern militaries in an age of asymmetrical warfare.

Military and civilian installations all over the world, ranging from America's Iraq command and control in Bagdad's Green Zone, to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, to Canada's reconstruction teams in Afghanistan, are under the constant threat from relatively inexpensive short-range weaponry, which can easily raise havoc and for which there are currently no defences. One Swiss company that is looking to reduce RAM threats is Oerlikon Contraves, the air defence division of Rheinmetall Defence Group, which has a related affiliate in St-Jean, Quebec.

Oerlikon Contraves is a systems integrator that specializes in air defence products, which can search, acquire, track and destroy a variety of incoming munitions. The company is currently conducting tests to adapt its SkySheild system, so that it can provide RAM defences to high value targets on both land and at sea.

Preliminary tests that were conducted late last year, indicate that the company's Ahead round, which has an electronically programmable time fuse, and which sets off up to 152 heavy metal sub-projectiles has the potential to destroy incoming small hard-to-hit RAM munitions. Furthermore these targets can be detected tracked and engaged even if they are fired in salvos. The RAM systems are still in the testing and development stages, though Oerlikon has sold one SkyShield system (sensor unit and command post along with two anti-aircraft guns) to the U.S. Army, through a partnership the company has with Lockheed Martin.

From commercial aircraft to military test planes
Pilates Aircraft Ltd., which is based at the Stans Airfield, in central Switzerland, is another good example of that small country's ability to carve out niches in small markets, that are overlooked by the bigger players. The company, known mostly for its PC-12 corporate aircraft is currently in the development stage of a replacement model for its PC-9 turboprop military trainer.

The new PC-21, which held its first pre-production test flight late last month, will be faster (370 NMPH v 325 NMPH), put out more horse-power and be more user friendly than its predecessor. It will come with two seats, one for the pilot and one for the instructor and is slated for use in training in specialized areas such as aircraft handling, tactical navigation, as well as simulated air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. It will feature a Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop engine that produces 1600 shp and an inboard computer supplied by General Dynamics that will increase its mission capability.

Pilatus suffered a set-back earlier this year when a PC-21 prototype crashed during its test maneuvers. Swiss authorities are investigating the crash, and their report should be available within the next 12 months, but in the meantime, company officials are pushing forward with development.

According to John Senior, Pilatus's vice-president (R&D), training aircraft have a huge role in modern militaries. "We estimate, that about 1,000 training aircraft are going to be replaced during the next 20 to 25 years," says Senior. "And since these units have a life cycle cost that is one fifth of that of a conventional jet, it's not hard to figure out why they continue to be so popular."

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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