“We add value: well-trained people with fresh ideas who are prepared to have a try and can take on leadership roles.”
Lieutenant-General Dennis Luyt was appointed operational commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in 2016. Since his appointment, he has focused on recovering from years of budget cuts within the RNLAF and on the transition to becoming a fifth-generation air force. To that end, investments will be made in the coming years in three areas: making better use of information and converting it into predictive capacity, further development of the operational level, and improving the flexibility of weapon systems and human resources.
“When I started three years ago, we were about to introduce new capacity. You can then continue to do what you always did, but then you won’t get what you need in the future. We had to have a clear vision and targets, and we needed to be ambitious.”
Royal NLR has long been a key partner for the RNLAF in various fields, helping it make concepts operational – from artificial intelligence to Big Data analyses and simulations, which the Air Force is utilizing to an increasing extent and intends to keep doing so. “NLR is a major player in that area as well as in all kinds of proof-of-concept projects that we cooperate in. We’re looking for new ideas every day that will help in the transition to the future. We involve NLR almost automatically because we know that the analysis will be good and accurate.”
The Air Force – a different world
Lieutenant-General Dennis Luyt began his Air Force career when he was seventeen. He did not come from a military family, but was still intrigued by the idea of training at the Royal Military Academy (KMA) as an air force officer. He trained as a fighter pilot and then, in order to keep flying for as long as possible, switched to leadership roles in which he progressed further. “I was relatively young when I signed up and the Air Force is an entirely different kind of life, of course. But then you discover the comradeship and everything that the work involves, and that’s instantly very special. I flew F-16’s for twenty-five years and F-18’s for three. So that’s a huge amount of flying and the nice thing is – and I reckon most pilots think the same – that it’s something you try to keep hold of for as long as you can. But what’s good about the Dutch military as an organization is that there are loads of different things you can do, if you want. Which is what I did.”
Nowadays, Lieutenant-General Dennis Luyt no longer flies because he cannot combine it with his work. Keeping your flying certificate up to date takes a lot of time, including clocking up regular flying hours. He now uses that time to visit the squadrons, for instance, and fly with them. He regularly spends a day with each and every unit, including the supporting squadrons such as the maintenance units. “Watching how they work shows you the diversity of this great organization. I don’t like sitting behind a desk all day long: I’m an operational guy, heart and soul. I also enjoy the administrative stuff, but every time I’m with a squadron and see that sparkle in their eyes, it makes me really happy.”
The Air Force always operates as part of a greater whole – as part of the Armed Forces or of international coalitions. It is important for the transition to a fifth-generation air force that the three themes are backed by all the partners in the network, including the industry. The art is to remain aligned with all those parties.
“I’m prepared to claim that we – the Air Force – have a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and embracing technology. That’s in our DNA. We also see that it’s infectious and that we get people on board in important topics.”
The transition to a fifth-generation air force
A vision has been developed and translated in a relatively short time to produce a roadmap that is now being realized in stages. In the current phase, the objectives are being concretized by taking steps towards a different way of working and letting go of aspects that are no longer relevant, or tackling new things that will become relevant in future.
The RNLAF has to become an information-driven organization. Information is increasingly becoming a central focus. Not only as a resource, but also as a target and a weapon. The F-35 will generate lots of data, for instance, as will unmanned aircraft, and resources in space are going to become increasingly important. All that information has to be better utilized and converted into predictive capacity, for example using Big Data and Machine Learning. “We’re putting an effort into the technical side, from IT systems to storage formats, or to bandwidth and secure networks for sharing data with one another. We’re also working on the soft skills too, the behavioural side. How can we make sure that we develop a way of thinking that keeps us sharing and enriching data, and then converting it into knowledge?”
The Air Force’s operational level needs to be developed further too. Over recent years, the RNLAF has learned to excel in tactical areas, i.e. at the implementation level. The Air Force had to abandon planning, controlling and monitoring operations at a higher level because of budgetary pressures. “In the past, our participation was limited to the tactical level – simply carrying out the mission. Now we’re saying that’s not right: we’re going to sit in HQ as well where the operation’s being set up and followed and controlled every day. We add value: well-trained people with fresh ideas who are prepared to have a try and can take on leadership roles.”
The agility of the organization, the weapons systems and the people must be increased, allowing them to be deployed as flexibly as possible. Conflicts that the Air Force gets involved in are often ones that develop rapidly, evolving from one minute to the next and making it more and more awkward to predict what the outcome will be.
“Whether you’re talking fighters, choppers or air transport, we have to make sure that we use them for as many jobs as possible and that we can switch roles very quickly. The first F-35 aircraft are arriving in the Netherlands in October 2019 – entirely new capacity that’s deployable in a wide spectrum of tasks, from air defence to attacking surface targets or from aerial reconnaissance to being a hub in a network for sharing data. You have to focus on those kinds of capabilities if you want to be able to respond really quickly. That is the agility and versatility that we need, not only from our systems but from our people as well. Being able to switch between roles. That’s what makes it so nice for our people: versatile and varied work.”
A look into the future for cooperation with Royal NLR
“NLR scientists are often more than just clever people who help us and add something unique. For example at Edwards, where we’re now carrying out the test phase for the F-35: they understand how the data being processed needs to be interpreted in practice and what it actually means. Over the years, NLR has shown that their assistance can be highly focused and very helpful. That’s invaluable to us. I rather see NLR as our own research lab, much as the AFRL – the Air Force Research Laboratory – is for the United States Air Force. We’ve been trying out new things together and thinking design concepts through for years now. That’s a form of comradeship too. Where I think that we’ll be needing NLR more in future is in space. That’s becoming increasingly important for the Air Force. Everything that’s going on in that area is going to change the future of our business. And our society is hugely dependent on space in all kinds of ways – take navigation, for instance. The thresholds are getting lower and lower. What role is Defence going to have in it?”