Eyeing Ukraine, neutral Switzerland mulls defence boost

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  • U.S. air force chief visits Swiss air bases
  • Swiss to get new jets, may draft women
  • Russia sanctions spark internal debate

PAYERNE, Switzerland, March 15 (Reuters) - The heads of the U.S. and Swiss air forces stressed the need for Western countries to strengthen security cooperation at an event on Tuesday that highlighted neutral Switzerland's increasingly assertive role in world affairs.

The generals watched a Swiss pilot fly a Hornet fighter in a simulation flight that was part of an official visit aimed at boosting cooperation as Bern prepares to receive more U.S. fighter jets by 2025.

"Recent events underscore the importance of working together to strengthen our strategic partnerships in order to meet our shared security requirements," U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown told journalists, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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While the visit and the Swiss decision to buy F-35 fighter jets were planned beforehand, events in Ukraine have prompted a debate in Switzerland about the country's defences and its role in the world, including its Western ties.

Bern's break with its past to adopt EU sanctions on Russia have sharpened the tone. read more

"By participating in the sanctions, Switzerland is now at war," Christoph Blocher, an influential figure in the far-right SVP party and billionaire entrepreneur, told the NZZ paper.

His party sees the move as part of a worrying interventionist trend and also opposes Bern's bid for a seat at the Security Council of the United Nations - a body Switzerland only joined via referendum in 2002.

In response, President Ignazio Cassis told parliament sanctions are not akin to military force against Russia and that Bern was doing its utmost to ensure a peaceful resolution.

The government is considering several proposals on how to shore up its defence including drafting women for the first time and boosting military spending by 2 billion Swiss francs a year.

Swiss air force chief Peter Merz said there was now an opportunity for closer cooperation with Europe, especially with Germany's plans to buy the same stealth jets built by Lockheed Martin (LMT.N). read more

"We are embedded with a great family of F-35s and this brings the potential of very close cooperation not only with the United States, but with many other European countries," he said.

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Additional reporting by Michael Shields, John Revill and Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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