“We have to be smarter to meet the challenges of a changing world order”

5 min reading time

The Dutch military and TNO have been strong partners for seventy years now. This partnership has produced many important technical innovations, but it has also been under much pressure due to budget cutbacks. TNO CEO Paul de Krom paid a visit to the new Dutch Chief of Defence, Lieutenant-Admiral Rob Bauer. Bauer emphasized TNO’s critical role in the defence organization in a rapidly changing world.

When you have been in a partnership for as long as seven decades, as the Ministry of Defence and TNO have, it is important to stay sharp and alert and to provide your partner with the best possible service. Ideal partners are proactive and conceive solutions even before a problem presents itself. Rob Bauer has described the relationship between the two organizations as a ‘strong Living Apart Together relationship’. This relationship has changed in the past years. Where TNO used to work exclusively for the government (and hence also the Ministry of Defence), it is now an ‘independent administrative agency’ with both government and private sector customers. “However, our relationship is as strong as ever,” says De Krom. “We have very close ties with the Ministry of Defence through our National Defence Research Council membership, of which TNO CCO Wim Nagtegaal is chair, and we coordinate our research programme closely with the current and future needs of the Ministry.”

“TNO has extensive expertise in the field of ballistics, which we can apply when we hold talks with weapons manufacturers, for example”

Preferred laboratory provider

Lieutenant-Admiral Bauer was appointed the new Chief of Defence on 5 October, just as the new government was being installed. For the first time in many years, this new government has pledged the Ministry substantial additional funding: an increase of €1.5 billion per year. This is on top of the existing annual defence budget of €9 billion. To Bauer’s great relief, after years of cost-cutting, the Ministry can now start investing again. Bauer is quick to recognize that this will have direct consequences for the relationship between the Ministry and TNO, in the form of potential new assignments. “TNO is our preferred laboratory provider,’ explains Bauer. ‘This partnership is very important to us. An excellent example is TNO’s extensive expertise in the field of ballistics, which we can apply when we hold talks with weapons manufacturers, for example.”

Intensive cross pollination

Bauer plans to focus on more intensive ‘cross pollination’ of knowledge sharing and knowledge development. This has been under some pressure in recent years due to far-reaching defence budget cuts. He emphasizes how a defence organization needs to be smarter to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world order. “But the same applies to TNO,’ responds De Krom. ‘We are faced with much the same challenges. We also need to keep increasing our pace to stay ahead. We take this responsibility very seriously.”

“To keep up with the needs of the Ministry, TNO researchers occasionally join missions abroad”

Cyber operations

The Dutch armed forces operate under all sorts of conditions. For example, sand and scorching heat during the missions in Uruzgan and Mali placed special demands on defence material. Moreover, the requirements of modern warfare also include being able to outsmart your enemies online. “Robotics, cyber, quantum communication, drones and apps are all examples of developments that demand quick responses and require solutions that go beyond the traditional defence industry,” explains De Krom. “We need to keep up, and preferably stay a step ahead. Where we used to think in terms of long-term solutions, today we do not always have the time to look so far into the future. It is one of the reasons why we cooperate with many different public and private sector parties. This enables us to collect and develop knowledge independently and then apply it to the benefit of the Ministry.”

Identifying developments

De Krom points out a critical and relatively new role that TNO plays in their partnership with the Ministry. Alongside developing innovations in house, this involves actively searching for innovative ideas in the world of the start-ups; ‘the bright young minds’. Or, for example, identifying existing knowledge held by the major technology giants that can be used by Defence. “This is the role I expect TNO play: an independent party who identifies developments and shares the knowledge they gain with us,” says Bauer.

“The partnership between the Ministry of Defence and TNO has resulted in the Robin radar, which helps to prevent bird strikes with aircraft”

Avoiding bird strikes

The strong partnership between the Dutch military and TNO has resulted in many valuable innovations. With some pride, De Krom mentions the Robin radar. This innovation identifies birds nearby airports and so helps prevent strikes with aircraft. TNO contributed to the development of this product, initially exclusively for the Ministry of Defence, and later for the commercial market as well. 

Joining missions

To keep up with the needs of the Ministry, TNO researchers occasionally join missions abroad. Here they can also contribute specific knowledge and expertise that the Ministry lacks, for example in the field of operational analysis to measure the results of long-term missions (such as that in Uruzgan). This sometimes also results in practical solutions that are not only valuable for the armed services, but can also benefit other public services, such as the police.

De Krom takes the opportunity to ask Bauer how the armed forces cooperate with the police (who also face increasingly stronger forms of violence) and if they share knowledge. “This is a challenge,” Bauer answers. “Although we cooperate in some areas, we remain two separate organizations, while we sometimes require similar solutions. Because TNO also has a strong partnership with the police, I expect it to play a role in strengthening the relationship between Defence and the police.”

Knowledge development

Towards the end of the meeting, Bauer emphasizes how close the relationship is – and must remain – between the Ministry and TNO. “In 2011 we had to strongly reduce the defence budget. It was a logical choice to invest less in defence research, even though it was clear that the demand for new knowledge was only increasing. More money was needed, but we only had less to spend. We are now reviewing our position and we plan to strengthen our organization through more knowledge development.” Of course we would be happy to receive more funding for research, concludes De Krom in response. “The NATO norm is to spend 2% of the national defence budget on research. This target has not been reached yet, but at TNO we like to say: the glass is half full, not half empty!”

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