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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Swiss Nuclear Weapons

Switzerland has been working for quite some time to stigmatise the use of nuclear weapons, in the same manner as the use of biological and chemical weapons, and ultimately to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons and bring about their verifiable elimination. It encourages and supports unilateral and bilateral efforts to reduce existing arsenals, while also playing an active role in the relevant multilateral forums.

At the multilateral level, the immediate focus lies on implementing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Switzerland takes a pragmatic and balanced approach to promoting the Treaty’s three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. While much has been achieved with regard to non-proliferation, there has been a distinct lack of progress in relation to disarmament goals.

But Switzerland has not always advocated nuclear disarmament. In fact, until the 1960s, Switzerland followed quite the opposite course with its nuclear weapons program. And only after the Cold War did it fully embrace a multilateralist approach to disarmament.

The Swiss atomic weapons program was secretly initiated in 1946 by the Swiss Military Department. According to the existing literature, Switzerland had many reasons to not acquire a nuclear weapon. There is ample evidence that the narrowly defined organizational imperatives of the Swiss armed forces – the organization charged with acquiring Switzerland’s nuclear weapons – played a significant role in undermining the Swiss nuclear weapon program.

In 1945 the Landesverteidigungskommission studied the use of nuclear weapons for the defense of switzerland. A year later the Swiss Federal Council approved the assembling of a commision - the Studienkommission für Atomergie - to evaluate the civilan uses of nuclear energy. In secret the commision was also ordered to look into the military uses of it by the council member Karl Kobelt. An other year later the Swiss Parliament approved a credit of 18 million swiss francs with out knowing of the military plans.

In 1956, when the Swiss government publicly announced its intention to possibly acquire nuclear arms, Soviet officials rebuked the Swiss embassy in Moscow. The Soviets angrily insisted that acquiring nuclear weapons would violate Switzerland’s neutrality and that Switzerland would aim those weapons at the USSR, which would be unacceptable to Moscow. The bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union Troops from 5 November 1956 on showed only too clearly the acute phase of the Cold War.

On March 29, 1957, the first meeting of the "Study Commission for the possible procurement of nuclear weapons" [Studienkommission fur die allfällige Beschaffung eigener Atomwaffen] was held. This was an organ of Chief of Staff Louis de Montmollin, who declared the matter secret and expressly forbade any contact with third parties authorized by him. The aim was to inform the Federal Council "about the possibility of procurement of nuclear weapons Switzerland. "

Later in 1958 the Federal Council stated that the military needed the best weapons for the protection of the swiss independence and neutrality, icluding nuclear weapons. The federal council wated to show that Switzerland was close to making nukes and would do so if more countries than the current nuclear powers (USA, UK, USSR) would make nuclear weapons. Especially the Germans were worried about this and assumed that in a case of the Bundeswher acquiring nuclear weapons the Swiss army would do the same.

The Federal Council wanted to to be armed. On 23 December 1958 it therefore commissioned the EMD, the effect of which Procurement, purchase and manufacture of nuclear weapons, and and application. In its report on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Initiative of July 7, 1961, the Federal Council once again raised the question of a possible nuclear armament. In 1960 defense minister Pierre Chaudet told President Petitpierre that reorganizing the armed forces had taken precedence over the military’s nuclear weapons mission.

In 1961 when the Swiss parliament authorized the military to spend 870 million Swiss francs (CHF) to acquire 100 French Dassault Mirage III combat aircraft. Over the next several years, the costs of the Mirage project climbed by an additional CHF 350 million, while only 57 aircraft were actually delivered.

By 1963 theoretical basics with detailed technical proposals, specific arsenals, and cost estimates for Swiss nuclear armaments were made. By 4 May 1964 the Swiss military joint staff issued a recommendation to have 250 nuclear weapons, including 100 on rockets, by 1980. In 1964 the first plans for a nuclear arming were presented to the EMD (Eidgenössisches Militärdepartement - federal military department). In the first phase it was planned to build 50 air-delivered bombs with a yield of 60 to 100 kiloton. Later an additional 200 bombs were planned to be bought. It was planned to do 7 underground tests in uninhabitaed mountain regions.

On the same day as the plan was presented, the goverment decided on an additional credit of 576 million fancs for the puchase of the Mirage III. The equipment to carry nuclear bombs was one of the reasons why the Mirage III ended up massivly overpriced. One result was that the legislature launched an inquiry into the matter, and in the late summer of 1964 concluded that the military had withheld important details about the procurement plan (such as avionics upgrades and airframe modifications that were necessary for the Mirage to meet the military’s nuclear delivery specifications) from the legislature.

The LVK (Landesverteidigungs Kommission / National Defence Commission), originally established in 1891, was composed of several high-ranking military officers and the minister of defence. Members of the legislature accused the LVK of misleading the government about the potential cost of 100 Dassault Mirage III combat aircraft.

It was impossible to maintain secrecy, as the well-informed interpellation by MP Helmut Hubachers of 9 December 1964 showed: "Is the Swiss Federal Department of Defense an instance which deals with the question of atomic armament at best with the Manufacture of nuclear weapons or their testing in their own country? If so, how is this specialized body composed?"

For the nuclear option, several events in the mid-1960s were a turning point. The Federal Council met with only half-hearted decisions that they have neither ended the Nuclear option, but needed the necessary political support for the further clarifications. In the follow-up to the Mirage crisis, the SP-National Councillor Walther Bringolf 1964 even called for a comprehensive review of defense doctrine. His motion thus initiated a process, which 1966 led to a compromise between area defence and Mobile defence and to a broad consensus on the conceptual issue and further reassured the strategy debate.

In the conception of 1966, the Federal Council signalled a "sincere desire" that in the field of arms control further agreements would be concluded. At the same time the conception of 1966 that «The pros and cons of their own Nuclear Weapons with all its effects» should be considered as long as nuclear weapons existed.

A detailed quantitative description of the dynamics of a uranium implosion device was published in Switzerland as a sequel of the Swiss atomic weapon program. The device consists of a 25 kg solid sphere of 235U surrounded by a 200 kg depleted uranium reflector/tamper. Using a spherical implosion driven by detonating high explosives, a maximum average compression of ? = 1.6 was achieved. The calculated nuclear energy yield was 22 kilotons. This corresponded to a fission efficiency of ? = 0.05 (i.e., about 5% of the uranium, which yields 17 kt per kg, 10 is fissioned). Since about 300 kg of high explosives are necessary to compress 225 kg of uranium, the total weight of a bomb based on such a design was on the order of 500 to 1,000 kg.

In 1968, with the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons the programm was halted. This program was abandoned partly because of financial costs and by signing the NPT on November 27, 1969. The program was definitively terminated in 1988, eleven years after Switzerland acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency came into force on September 6, 1978, unlawful nuclear weapons activities continued until November 1, 1988, when the program was finally terminated by the Federal Council.

As part of this “emerging power” policy, Switzerland held a stockpile of 5.5 tons of raw uranium and uranium oxide (UO3) in secret until 1981, when it was placed under IAEA safeguards, four years after ratifying the NPT. Switzerland's the program was truly ended in 1988 with the disbanding of the succesor of the Commision from 1946. In 1988 the Swiss Federal Council determined that Switzerland’s nuclear weapon activities were no longer necessary. Even with the program stopped, Switzeland still had material to make 4 nuclear bombs until January 2016.

In April 2015 Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter called for an “ambitious and pragmatic” approach to eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide at the opening of a United Nations conference in New York. The month-long meeting was taking stock of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by 189 states.

In his speech, Burkhalter said current “global power shifts, geopolitical tensions, and regional instabilities… should not be an excuse for inaction” on disarmament. The Swiss minister said the total elimination of nuclear weapons was not possible overnight but as an initial urgent step states should focus on the progressive reduction of nuclear-related risks. “Nuclear-armed states should reduce the operational readiness of their weapons and lengthen decision times,” said Burkhalter.

An official historical account of the Swiss atomic program was declassified and published on April 25, 1996. The most thorough English-language accounts of why Switzerland terminated its nuclear weapons activities are by T.V. Paul and Ursula Jasper. Paul concludes that Switzerland decided to not acquire nuclear weapons because the Swiss government feared that if they had nuclear weapons, they would become a target for pre-emptive nuclear strikes.

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Page last modified: 24-09-2017 18:50:03 ZULU