The annual gathering of Swiss, Austrian and German defence ministers, Viola Amherd, Klaudia Tanner and Boris Pistorius, is taking place in Bern on 6 and 7 July. Among other things, the trio will discuss the prospect of Austria and Switzerland – both non-Nato members known for their neutrality – joining the German-led ‘European Sky Shield Initiative’.

“A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is due to be signed on the participation of Switzerland and Austria in the European Sky Shields Initiative,” the Swiss government said in a press release.

Sky Shield is an initiative that brings 17 European countries together to strengthen their collective air defences through a common acquisition of equipment and missiles. The plan was introduced by Germany on 13 October 2022.

European nations have provided a wide range of air and missile defense systems to help Ukraine defend against indiscriminate missile and drone strikes by Russia. Russia’s aggression and tactics have also renewed focus on their own air and missile defenses. 

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GlobalData intelligence provides some insight into the two neutral nation’s change of heart.

Austria’s aging equipment and need for new systems will be a major driver, and a number of its systems have out-of-service dates rapidly approaching which will compound the need for new acquisitions. Nonetheless, the country is also committed to ongoing operations as part of EU defence.

Similarly, the Swiss Armed Forces need to modernise. They remain limited due to the perceived sense of security derived from Switzerland’s historical neutrality policy. However, the deteriorating security situation in Europe, alongside several high-profile incidents which saw ageing Swiss fighter jets crash during training exercises.

The evolution of Sky Shield

Paritcipating Nato countries include: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, the United Kingdom, as well as Finland, which was not in Nato at the time; while Denmark and Sweden joined in February 2023.

A part of Sky Shield’s envisioned multinational acquisition will be conducted through a Rapid Acquisition Track within Nato’s Modular Ground-Based Air Defence High Visibility Project. Ten allied defence ministers launched this effort in February in parallel through an MoU and associated funding commitments.

Controversy over US defence influence

On 19 June, a meeting aimed at harmonising European countries’ air defence policies was held in Paris, at the initiative of the French President Emmanuel Macron. It was attended by defence ministers and state secretaries from 20 European countries.

France did not join the German initiative as it would work against its commercial interests: it manufactures the SAMP/T medium-range system in co-operation with Italy. The French Armed Forces have eight SAMP/T batteries and four Crotale NG short-range batteries (with a total of eight to ten systems; two of them were likely delivered to Kyiv).

Paris claims that Sky Shield favours not only German but also non-European technologies (specifically US and Israeli). Macron’s speech at the meeting revealed France’s different view on the development of air defence capabilities in Europe.