GENEVA -- The Swiss like to say they don't have an army -- they ARE the army. But that assumption is under attack from critics who say the force that has kept Switzerland out of wars since 1515 has become a dinosaur gobbling up public money.
The test comes Sunday in a referendum on a citizen proposal to slash the defense budget and spend the savings on civilian needs.
The change would strike at the heart of the militia system that requires every Swiss male to undergo basic military training, keep his gun at home, and attend refresher courses every two years until age 40.
The system means that bankers and building laborers, company executives and cooks, all are whisked with clockwork regularity to Alpine outposts or underground bunkers to brush up their commando and marksmanship skills.
It also means that the army is embedded deeper in the national culture than in most countries, and may help to explain why voters are likely to leave things the way they are.
The proposed changes, backed by left-wing and humanitarian aid groups, would effectively lop about $1 billion off annual military spending by 2010, to leave it at $1.74 billion.
Proponents argue that with the Cold War over, Switzerland's cherished neutrality no longer needs to be backed up by large-scale reserve forces, fighter planes, armor and artillery.
"With its grotesquely excessive military spending, Switzerland is in a league of its own internationally," says Werner Marti of the Socialist Party, which gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to force a referendum.
The Socialists claim that Swiss military spending declined by only 8 percent between 1987 and 1997, compared with 38 percent worldwide.
The Swiss government disputes this and maintains the defense budget has fallen by more than one-quarter in real terms since 1987. It calls the proposed cuts "superfluous, unacceptable and dangerous."
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Swiss per capita defense spending in 1997 was $544 -- above the NATO average of $433, but well below the U.S. figure of $1,018.
"We have to resist any further reductions in order to guarantee that the army fulfills its triple mission: promoting international peace; defending Swiss soil and protecting the population," declared Defense Minister Adolf Ogi.
Polls predict the proposal will be thrown out, just as a more radical idea to scrap the army altogether was rejected by a 65 percent majority in 1989.
Many Swiss believe their military is a strong deterrent that has kept their small country out of Europe's wars.
The nation of 7 million has 390,000 reserve soldiers who undergo 15 weeks of basic training followed by regular two- to three-week refresher courses and so are ready for instant call-up. And those retired from service get to keep their guns.
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