Swiss security policy in an unstable world

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Swiss security policy must adapt to a harsher environment, says Federal Councill

Swiss security policy must adapt to a harsher environment, says Federal Councillor Viola Amherd. (Image: Alessandro Della Bella / ETH Zürich)

During her visit to ETH Zurich, Defence Minister Viola Amherd sketched a picture of an unstable, unpredictable world to which Swiss security policy must adapt. ETH Zurich and EPFL make an important contribution to the security of Switzerland by training specialist personnel and facilitating knowledge transfer.

At the invitation of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich and the Europa Institut at the University of Zurich, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd gave a public lecture on 8 November 2021 on the subject of a secure Switzerland and what we will and must do to achieve it. ETH President Joel Mesot welcomed her in the packed Audimax lecture hall and referred to the close and multifaceted partnership between ETH and the federal defence department. Security, said the ETH president, is never guaranteed and needs science to contribute, too.

The collaboration between ETH and the federal government ranges from the CSS’ political science analysis to the technical expertise of the Zurich Information Security & Privacy Center (ZISC) to the newly established Cyber Defence Campus with a site at ETH Zurich. Not to be overlooked, said Mesot, is the ETH-based MILAC military academy, the collaboration with the Federal Office for Defence Procurement armasuisse in robotics, and SCION, the next-generation secure internet built on ten years of research at ETH.

The world has become more malicious

Amherd began her remarks with the statement that Switzerland’s security is closely linked to developments in its environment - and that has become more unstable and unpredictable. One important reason for this is the intensification of rivalries between major and regional powers: "The rivalry between the US and China is escalating. Russia and regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are asserting their interests more forcefully," she said.

States are also increasingly operating in the grey area between war and peace to pursue their interests. Cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns, said the Federal Councillor, are important tools in the armoury of hybrid attacks. She also referred to the security implications of climate change, which further exacerbates existing problems such as uncontrolled migration and conflicts in crisis regions.

Overall, said Amherd, the security outlook has become bleaker: "International tensions have heightened and the spectrum of threats and dangers has expanded." In order to protect the ability to act, self-determination and the integrity of Switzerland and its people, Swiss security policy must adapt to this harsher environment.

Strengthening defence against cyber risks

Against this background of threat, Amherd formulated a number of security priorities. Along with better early threat and crisis detection, she emphasised above all protection against cyber risks. It is in this area, she said, that collaboration with ETH Zurich and EPFL is particularly relevant.

The laboratory at the Cyber Defence Campus, opened two years ago in Zurich, is an important element in training the specialists required for federal government, academia and the economy. The new Master’s Programme in Cyber Security , jointly created by ETH and EPFL, also demonstrates that cyber security is a strategic focus of the federal universities.

Conventional threats remain

According to Amherd, the stronger focus on cyberspace does not mean that conventional military methods have become irrelevant. On the contrary, the Armed Forces must be able to deploy rapidly and flexibly across a broad spectrum and be equipped accordingly. To the Federal Councillor, this also applies to defence of Swiss airspace with new combat aircraft: "We did not come out for or against European collaboration in choosing the American F-35; we simply chose the best fighter plane."

Another priority of Swiss security policy in her eyes is the strengthening of international partnerships: "Given the increasing level of confrontation and formation of blocs, we must work harder and more deliberately on the international stage in support of stability and security." One important contribution in this context is military peace-building. The Defence Minister again confirmed her desire to continue to expand the Swiss Armed Forces’ contribution to peace-building.

At the end of her lecture, Amherd addressed the subject of strengthening protection against natural disasters and crises. The Covid-19 crisis has shown the importance of a crisis-resistant supply of critical, essential goods and services.

In addition, it is also important to be better prepared for natural disasters, as these will become more frequent and intense in future due to climate change and population density. The Federal Councillor cited as an example the introduction of secure communications channels for crisis response organisations that can be used even in extreme events such as power outages.

Europe and the dialogue about security policy

In the subsequent Q&A, Federal Councillor Amherd opened the floor to plenty of questions from the audience. Two topics came up the most often. The first was how the termination of negotiations for a framework agreement will affect collaboration on security issues with Europe. To start, Federal Councillor Amherd emphasised that she would have preferred continuing the dialogue with the EU. However, she said she would do everything necessary to strengthen cooperation with European partners under the new circumstances even without an institutional agreement.

Second, multiple comments from the audience brought up the need for greater dialogue with the public. Amherd agreed with this, noting that the coronavirus crisis has taught us the painful lesson that security can’t be taken for granted. It is necessary, she said, to make security a bigger topic in public discourse and create an awareness that we must anticipate certain limitations in other crises as well. As an example of this kind of dialogue, the Defence Minister cited an annual "day of security" in secondary schools, during which students can learn about the topic in depth. The Canton of Thurgau is already running this event in a pilot project.

Christoph Elhardt

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