Austria and Switzerland Agree to Join European Sky Shield Initiative

Foreign Affairs

Belfast: Militarily neutral nations of Austria and Switzerland have both signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to join the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) based around development of a common ground-based air defence (GBAD) capability.

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Klaudia Tanner, Austria’s minister of defence, and Viola Amherd, Switzerland’s minister of defence, signed the MoU in Bern, Switzerland, alongside German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius.

“The purpose of the ESSI is to better coordinate and, if necessary, bundle air defence procurement projects in Europe in order to use economies of scale and improve interoperability,” noted Switzerland’s Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport in a statement.

A total of 17 countries have already joined ESSI, first launched in October 2022. Switzerland made clear that it will “examine” areas where co-operation can be strengthened, with a plan to specifically address information exchange and training for the US-made Patriot air defence system, of which it ordered five units in June 2021.

It highlighted that cost savings could be achieved by opting for just an approach. The small nation’s historic neutrality, which legally bars it from participating in wars “between states” but allows it to “ensure its own defence,” will not be compromised by the decision to join ESSI, the state said.

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“Switzerland and Austria have set out their reservations about neutrality in an additional declaration, for example to rule out any participation in or involvement in international military conflicts,” added the Swiss statement.

NATO stresses that ESSI will allow partners to develop a missile defence system “using interoperable, off-the-shelf solutions.”

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Current equipment plans for Sky Shield are focused on a proposal from Germany for the short-range air defence Iris-T system manufactured by German defence firm Diehl, America’s Raytheon’s medium-range Patriot PAC-3 and Israel Aerospace Industries’ long range Arrow 3 missile system.

However, France has strongly pushed back against the German plans, opposing “non-European” solutions, and remains unwilling to join Sky Shield.

“What comes to us from non-European third parties is obviously less manageable, subject to timetables, queues, priorities, sometimes third-country authorizations and too dependent on the outside world,” French President Emmanuel Macron was quoted as saying by Le Monde newspaper, during a European air defence conference held on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show in June.

The report also said that France had decided to procure “several hundred” MBDA-manufactured Mistral short-range surface-to-air missiles to counter ESSI.