No, no, and again no. Switzerland continues to deny the right to other European countries to deliver arms and ammunition produced on Swiss soil to Ukraine. Alain Berset, the Swiss president, thus signified on Tuesday April 18 an end of inadmissibility to the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholzwhich once again asked him for permission to deliver to kyiv about 12,000 munitions stored in Germany for the 37 German Gepard anti-aircraft tanks sent to the front a year ago.
“We cannot be forced to violate our own laws”, affirmed Alain Berset during his visit to Germany. The confederation has indeed taken refuge behind its famous neutrality to justify its inflexibility since the start of the major Russian offensive in Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Legally, it does not have the right to sell arms to a country that is actively engaged in a military conflict. That’s not all: Bern also refuses that countries holding stocks of weapons manufactured in Switzerland send them back to a nation at war.
The imbroglio around the German Gepard illustrates the very concrete consequences of this position. This armored vehicle had indeed been one of the very first Western tanks delivered to Ukraine and the war gave it a new raison d’être: that of “killer of drones”.
Germany has not used Gepard since the beginning of the 2010s. “It was manufactured in the 1970s to shoot down Soviet helicopters in the event of USSR air raids on Western Europe”, underlines Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military issues and an outside consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center. But the development of more modern weapons and the collapse of the Soviet regime eventually convinced Berlin that this anti-aircraft tank was obsolete.
Nevertheless, this “defense system remains very efficient. It brings together in a vehicle everything that is necessary to counter enemy planes, missiles, helicopters and drones up to a distance of 3,500 meters”, underlines Alexandre Vautravers, editor in chief of the Swiss Military Review and former deputy commander of an armored brigade.
In addition to great mobility, it is “especially its very sophisticated radar system which is its strength”, assures Jeff Hawn. These assets allowed the Gepard to become the star of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region in September 2022. “The Russians, who had great difficulty knowing where the Ukrainian forces were, sought to locate them using drones , and the Gepard was used to destroy them and thus allow the Ukrainians to maintain their tactical advantage,” explains Gustav Gressel, specialist in Russian military issues at the European Council for International Relations.
It was on this occasion that this armored vehicle earned its reputation as a “drone killer”. “Its radars and the ability to lock onto a target make it more effective than other man-portable air defense systems that don’t have such a capable detection system, and it wouldn’t be very cost-effective to use guided missiles that could cost tens of thousands of dollars to shoot down simple drones”, summarizes Jeff Hawn.
The Gepard is also called upon to play an ever more important role because “Russia is increasingly using drones to support its operations”, adds the American expert.
And this is where the Swiss shoe pinches. As Germany turned the page on the Gepard, it also stopped manufacturing the appropriate ammunition. Switzerland, the historical technological partner of this anti-aircraft defense system, then became its main supplier.
Since the delivery of the first tanks to Ukraine in July 2022, Berlin has not stopped asking Bern. “The question of ammunition was problematic from the start”, affirmed in November the Tagesschauthe main news program of the first German television channel.
Germany had supplied 60,000 shells for Gepard “coming from stocks probably dating back to before the 1990s, at a time when the Swiss were less careful about the possibility of re-exporting the weapons they manufactured”, notes Gustav Gressel.
It is little: “The Gepard have a very high consumption of ammunition”, underlines Jeff Hawn. In theory, they can fire up to 1,000 shells per minute, but “in general, they use a hundred rounds per salvo”, estimates Gustav Gressel.
Hence fears that Ukraine will quickly run out of ammunition for its “drone killers”. Several Anglo-Saxon media And germans have already announced that, without a quick decision from Switzerland, the Gepards will soon be useless. Even Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, urged Switzerland in March to give the green light to the reshipment of ammunition for Gepard held in German stocks.
Alarm bells that would have been sounded a little quickly to the taste of the Swiss military expert Alexandre Vautravers. “I have not heard any Ukrainian confirmation of a specific lack of ammunition for Gepards – which are also produced in other countries by the way. [Norvège, Turquie, Espagne, NDLR]”, he argues. An opinion partly shared by Gustav Gressel. “There was an obvious shortage of ammunition after the counter-offensive against Kharkiv, but it seems that the Ukrainians have managed to obtain some since”, analyzes this specialist in conflict in Ukraine.
Difficult to know where this providential ammunition would come from. “Germany has asked other countries that have stocks, such as Brazil and Qatar,” said Gustav Gressel. Brazil has made it clear that it will not supply arms to Ukraine, but Qatar has not taken an official position on this issue.
For Alexandre Vautravers, all this controversy around the Swiss refusal to let Germany send its stocks of ammunition “is above all an attempt by Berlin – criticized for its slowness and not having provided enough heavy weapons to Ukraine – to defuse these criticisms by pointing an accusing finger at other countries, while trying to tip Switzerland into the camp of the countries which deliver arms to Kiev”.
Nevertheless, with a Ukrainian counter-offensive looming on the horizon, “these Gepard could be called upon to play a very active role in protecting the advance of the troops”, assures Jeff Hawn. No question, under these conditions, of taking the risk of running out of ammunition for these “drone killers”. If Bern agreed to put a little water in the wine of its sacrosanct neutrality, this would make it possible to better respond to “the urgency of the situation”, estimated Le Monde in an editorial published in November 2022.
Germany also intends to reduce this dependence on “made in Switzerland” as soon as possible. Rheinmetal, the German manufacturer of the Gepard, thus bought the Spanish ammunition manufacturer Expal Systems in November for more than a billion euros. “The first ammunition for the Gepard in Ukraine should leave the factory this summer”, estimates Gustav Gressel. To see if this delay is compatible with the Ukrainian counter-offensive plans.
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