Peter Haclerode reports on Switzerland’s rarely seen, but highly efficient, airborne Special Forces – FSK 17.
DESPITE IT’S LONG-MAINTAINED policy of neutrality, Switzerland has always considered defence to be a high priority. The Swiss armed forces maintain a high degree of professionalism and are extremely well armed and equipped — and yet national servicemen have only 17 weeks basic training to their credit, topped up by a 19-day refresher course every two years.
However, the Swiss armed forces also include a small, but highly trained, special forces element, the Fernspah Kompanie 17.
In 1968, the Swiss decided that its army needed a unit of highly trained troops capable of operating independently in hostile terrain under adverse conditions. Swiss officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were sent on training courses with airborne and special forces units from other countries, enabling them to evaluate concepts, techniques and equipment.
As a result, it was decided to form a company of parachutists, which was designated Fallschirmgrenadiere Kompanie 17 (Parachute Grenadier Company 17).
In August 1980, after further studies, a Swiss military commission decided to allocate a new role to the parachute grenadiers — that of long- range reconnaissance patrols. The company was then redesignated Fernspah Kompanie 17 (FSK 17), a long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) unit.
The company comprises approximately 100 personnel of all ranks, and is divided into three equal-sized elements of officers, NCOs and soldiers. Selection commences prior to enlistment for national service at the age of 17, when applications from volunteers are processed through the FVS, a branch of the Swiss Aero-Club, which is also responsible for licensing and regulating all parachute clubs in Switzerland.
There are usually between 500 and 700 applications for each FSK 17 intake. After educational qualifications have been scrutinised, this number is reduced to 300 hopefuls, who then undergo a thorough medical examination at the Swiss Air Force Medical Centre — of these, only about 80 will be passed as fit to proceed further.
The first stage of training, which takes place when the volunteers are 18-years-old, is a two- week course in basic parachuting conducted at a licensed parachute club. Trainees carry out ten static-line and about 25 free-fall descents, using the high performance American MT-1XX ram-air parachute. They combine this with theory studies in accordance with Swiss regulations governing civil parachutists. Only about 40 trainees will normally complete this part of the course successfully.
The next stage takes place when volunteers have reached the age of 19, they return for a further two-week course in advanced free-fall parachute training which, upon successful completion, will qualify them for their civil free-fall licence. A total of 35 free-fall descents are carried out and approximately two-thirds of trainees (about 30) will qualify. Those who do so then undergo an exhaustive medical and psychological examination at the Air Force Medical Centre before being permitted to enlist as recruits in the Fernspaher Schule where they are trained for entry into FSK 17. About 20 will pass this examination.
Basic training lasts for 21 weeks and is divided into three main periods: infantry training (five weeks), reconnaissance techniques (ten weeks) and military free-fall parachuting (five weeks). Each period is divided into different selection phases with clearly defined targets which each recruit must achieve — failure to do so will result in instant rejection.
Training covers a wide spectrum of subjects, including: operations at night, use of enemy weapons and equipment, close combat, operating in difficult terrain, navigation, combat survival, radio communications, combat medicine to an advanced level, and demolitions.
Recruits are also put under ever-increasing physical and mental pressure. Combat survival training is carried out in a valley near Centovalli towards the Swiss/Italian border. The terrain is hostile, consisting of high cliffs, deep ravines and steep waterways which are difficult to negotiate and mode all the more hazardous by the constant threat of rock falls. Recruits spend a week in this area, practising their survival techniques.
Parachute training is equally demanding and is frequently carried out in the sort of weather conditions that would result in jumps being cancelled in other countries. Emergency procedures are practised by day and night, and descents are carried out with weapons and equipment night and day from different altitudes.
The mountainous terrain, with the added hazard of power cables, means that parachute insertions have to be carried out with utmost precision. Recruits are taught to calculate release points, opening altitudes and glide paths when planning tasks. Trials were carried out some years ago with helmet-mounted radar transponders as a means of improving positional control. It was members of FSK 17 who pioneered and developed the technique of the ‘tactical diamond’ whereby a patrol of four parachutists exit from an aircraft at the same time and hold on to each other in free-fall, breaking apart to deploy their canopies and landing within yards of each other. This technique is especially useful for an insertion at night, in poor visibility or when jumping on to a small drop zone.
The requirement for maximum accuracy in parachute insertions was the reason for the selection of the MT-1XX parachute. Previously, the company had used the well-known Para- Commander Mk.l which possessed a descent ratio of 4.5 m/sec and a forward speed of the same. This was adequate for high altitude low opening (HALO) means of entry, dropping from a height of between 8,202ft and 9,842ft (2,500m/3,000m) and free-falling to 2,296ft or 2,624ft (700m/800m) before deploying their canopies. However, FSK 17’s LRRP role required its patrols to employ high altitude high opening (HAHO) from altitudes between 19,685ft and 32,808ft (6,000m/10,000m), using oxygen, thus enabling parachutists to glide for long distances before landing at a pre-selected location.
The Swiss found that while the Para- Commander was extremely manoeuvrable, it lacked sufficient forward speed for their purposes. This was particularly the case in situations where the smaller reserve canopy had to be used, when forward speed was reduced and speed of descent obviously increased. The MT-1XX, on the other hand, whilst possessing the same descent ratio as the Para-Commander, had a considerably higher forward speed of 13.5 m/sec. Moreover, its reserve canopy was the same size as the main one, and delivered the same performance. In addition, when turned into the wind for landing, the MT-1XX descended at a rate of 0.3 m/sec with a forward speed of 0.55 m/sec. These figures made it an ideal choice for FSK 17 airborne operations.
In addition to HALO and HAHO training, the men of FSK 17 also practise low-level drops from heights as low as 328ft (100m). For this, they use the standard American T10 non-steerable military static line parachute.
At the end of basic training, those who have successfully completed the course receive the coveted Fernspaher qualification badge. They return home fully equipped with their own MT- 1XX parachute, personal weapon, ammunition, equipment and clothing which must be kept ready for immediate use.
Thereafter each man will be required to carry out annual training which consists of a three- week refresher course in specialist skills, one week of military free-fall parachute training and one week of sport parachuting. The latter is an absolute minimum requirement and is far exceeded by the majority of the members of FSK 17.
The company operates in four-man patrols, reflecting the unit’s role of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Each patrol is equipped with a high frequency radio set to transmit information to the Swiss Army’s High Command. Personal weapons and equipment are standard Swiss Army issue.
Patrols are normally deployed by parachute from a Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter. This high-wing aircraft was designed originally for civil use in areas where a STOL capability was required on small airfields with difficult access. It can accommodate up to five parachutists, a large rearward-sliding hatch on the starboard side, and double doors on the port side, facilitating exit. Powered by a single 550shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-27 turboprop engine, the aircraft has a maximum cruising speed at 10,000ft (3,048m) of 161 mph (259km/h) and range on internal fuel of 644 miles (1,036km).
During the relatively short period of its existence, FSK 17 has established a reputation for being a highly competent and professional unit. Exchange visits and close co-operation with special forces of other nations, particularly American, British and French units, has meant that the Swiss unit has benefited from the cross-fertilisation of ideas and keeps up to date with equipment and operational innovations.
As proof of the high degree of proficiency within Fernspoh Kompanie 17 its free-fall parachute team won the International Military Competition in 1981, one year after it assumed its new LRRP role — indeed, a FSK 17 team has come in the top three places ever since.