info-suisse October-November 2010
International Affairs | Switzerland-Canada Comparisons
October 2010

Military Service in Canada and in Switzerland

(Kurt Schl├Ąpfer)
When a group of Swiss men gets together, it happens quite often that they share experiences from the Swiss army. This is due to the fact that every able-bodied Swiss man has to serve in the Swiss army. As the military service in Switzerland is performed part-time, the Swiss army is embedded in the economy and society of the country. Diametrically opposed to the Swiss citizen army, the Canadian military force is a standing army consisting of full-time soldiers. For Swiss residents in Canada it might be of interest to compare the two completely different military cultures. 

The Canadian Forces

The Canadian Forces as they are known today exist since 1968 when the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force were amalgamated. They are divided into the Regular Force and the Reserve Force. The Regular Force is the part of the Canadian Forces that serves full-time, while the role of the Reserve Force is to support the Regular Force. Canada has no conscription, i.e. no obligation to perform military service. All members of the Canadian Forces are volunteers. With 67,700 troops the Regular Force appears small compared with other countries such as the United Kingdom that has a standing army of 176,000, admittedly with a higher population but with a much smaller area. An indicator to compare countries with a standing army is the number of troops being active on duty per 1000 capita. Canada ranks with a figure of 2.0 clearly behind the United Kingdom (2.8), Germany (3.1) and the United States (5.1). Regardless of its size, a standing army is often a state within the state, which is also true for the Canadian Forces. The troops live in their own communities, having special facilities such as schools, retail stores (CANEX stores), medical services, club activities etc. The payment is comparable or even better than in many civil jobs. The monthly salary of a sergeant in his third year can go up to $ 6,270 and a colonel can earn $ 11,950. Members of the Reserve Force are paid in daily rates that can amount to $ 334 for a colonel in his third year. 

The mission of the Canadian Forces is to protect Canada, to defend North America in co-operation with the U.S. and to contribute to international peace and security. Currently, in a major peace-keeping mission 2830 troops are deployed in Afghanistan. 

The Swiss Armed Forces 

The Swiss Federal Constitution has a clause saying "Every Swiss man is required to do military service." In 1990 the Swiss army had 781,500 troops or 116 per 1000 capita. After three reorganisations the current number of troops is 194,000. Strictly speaking, no military members are permanently on active duty. However, per annum 20,000 recruits perform the basic training of 18 to 21 weeks and another 5000 members of the army make promotion services of variable length. Moreover, some 100,000 perform so-called refresher courses (abbreviated in Swiss German: WK) lasting up to 19 days per year. A limited number of soldiers (around 3000) make their service in one single period (in Switzerland called Durchdiener). And some 280 members of the army are engaged full-time in peace support operations. In the largest current mission 220 people are deployed in Kosovo. Those having fulfilled their mandatory service remain reservists for no longer than 8 years.

A special characteristic of the Swiss militia army system is that every soldier has his personal weapon including ammunition at home. The reason is that the army can be mobilized at a moment’s notice. In view of the increasing number of incidents involving army guns combined with the fact that many weapons are kept in unsecured closets, the Swiss Parliament decided in 2007 to place a ban on keeping ammunition at home. The boxes of bullets already being in possession of the soldiers have to be returned.   

Every country with a mandatory military service is faced with the problem of conscientious objectors. Until 1996 the only alternative to military service was to be sentenced to imprisonment. In 1996 a civilian service was introduced, which lasts 50 % longer than the military service. Despite the extra time they have to serve, the number of men choosing the civilian service increased to nearly 9,000 per year. These figures, however, do not diminish the operational readiness of the Swiss army. In view of the growing budget constraints there is an ongoing discussion whether or not the number of troops should be reduced. Some people even opt for the abolition of the mandatory military service. But this would require a change in the Swiss Federal Constitution. Since a military threat appears unlikely within the foreseeable future, the Defence Minister himself proposes in a report to the Swiss Parliament to reduce the army to a target value of 80,000 troops, assuming that the current budget is not further reduced.

Two different armies with similar problems

Both the Canadian and the Swiss Armed Forces list among their major tasks the support of civil affairs and peace-keeping operations abroad.   

Civil affairs support is criticised in both countries because of the large number of involved troops and the fact that such missions have nothing to do with defence. The 2008 European Football Championships held in Switzerland (and Austria) were supported by 15,000 Swiss military persons. Furthermore, the Swiss army is engaged in protecting foreign embassies and providing support to Ski World Cup Races. A Swiss press review comments on this: "We don’t need an army for foreign missions and to prepare ski slopes, but just exclusively for defence." The 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver were supported by 16,000 police and military personnel. The Toronto Star titled "Olympics push army to edge". An equally big operation for the Canadian army was the G8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario.

Military operations abroad are also a contentious issue in both countries. Although the Kosovo mission of the Swiss army runs as peace-keeping operation, some people in Switzerland fear that such missions become peace-enforcing or even an act of war. This is what happened to Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.

A public that has long seen its military as innocently patrolling the peace has had trouble adjusting to its forces engaging in a full-fledged unconventional war. 

The Time Magazine

The main issue affecting the Canadian public opinion is the fact that this war has claimed the lives of 155 Canadian soldiers (as of March 2011). The parliamentary budget forecasts that the total cost of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan will be 14 to 18 billion dollars by 2011. By May 2010, Canada's Afghanistan mission surpassed even the length of official U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. A comment that reflects the opinion of many Canadians:  "Once the Canadian Forces are out of Afghanistan, we need not fight another war simply to employ the army, any more than we must take on a peacekeeping mission."

Armed forces in Canada and in Switzerland





33.5 million

7.8 million

Obligation to perform military service


mandatory (conscription)

Military expenditures in CAD

21.0 billion

4.1 billion

Military expenditures in % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

1.3 %

0.8 %

Number of troops

- on active duty

- reserve force

- total









Number of troops per 1000 capita



Length of service

min. 3 years

min. 260 days

Troops in peace support operations



SCCC Corporate Members
  • Habib Canadian Bank  (Subsidiary of Habib Bank AG Zurich)
  • Zurich Canada
  • Laderach (Canada) Inc.
  • Custom Spring Corporate
  • Rolex Canada Ltd.
  • Lette LLP
  • Swiss Business Hub
  • Roche Canada
  • Swissmar Ltd.
  • Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.
  • Endress + Hauser Canada Ltd
  • Hilti (Canada) Corporation
  • Switzerland Tourism
  • Mazars LLP
  • Canadian Tire Corporation
  • Lindt & Spruengli (Canada) Inc.
  • Adecco Employment Services Limited