Fit for the Future

Interview with Lieutenant General Alexander Schnitger, Commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force

By Lieutenant General (ret.)

By Lt Gen



, NE


Commander, Royal Netherlands Air Force (2012-2016)

 June 2016


The JAPCC is grateful to Lieutenant General Schnitger for taking the time to answer some questions, providing his insight into key issues facing the Joint Air Power community today. At the time this interview was held, he was still in active duty.

Looking around, a new world or a new society will develop at a pace faster than ever before in the next decades. How do you look to this changing world and how can we, as Air Forces, play a role in it?

Some call it the post-industrial age. I feel uncomfortable with this designation. The most influential driver of this new world, this new society, I believe is the exponential technological development witnessed in all areas of expertise. This technology development will significantly impact all forms and ways of life, with software playing an ever-increasing role. I feel therefore more comfortable with the term ‘The Software Revolution’. This revolution will not only disrupt or influence the way we live as individuals, but will also prompt new forms of society. These developing societies will consequently determine new forms of government and alternate political systems, in turn completely changing the concept and resolution of conflicts. The technological progress will, sooner or later, lead to significantly enhanced situational awareness and understanding, specifically by third and fourth (space) dimension means. Superior awareness and understanding will subsequently enable us to move up in the security chain, with the ultimate goal of preventing conflict (escalation). This development gives rise to a new and unprecedented concept of the ‘High Ground’. From this new ‘High Ground’, the role of the armed forces and specifically the role of third and fourth dimension military means the security ecosystem will transform to the new role of security custodian.

‘Each and everyone needs to create its own asymmetry.’

In this fast changing environment, how will you as the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) be able to continue to make a relevant contribution to international peace, security and freedom?

The concurrence of several aforementioned developments, including, but by no means limited to, the introduction of a fifth generation fighter jet, triggered a more forward-looking attitude within the RNLAF. Therefore, the RNLAF started a process of re-inventing and future-proofing the RNLAF resulting in a program we call ‘Air Force 3.0’. It quickly became apparent that it is not sufficient to implement a range of different separate steps. To remain successful and relevant, we need to reinvent the Air Force. Not by making changes to the current organization, but by rebuilding the whole structure in innovative ways. More than ever there is need for coherence and setting out a new course. Hence, laying the foundation for the Air Force of the future. RNLAF 3.0 is all about innovation, transformation, technology, and cooperation. Central to this is the human being … the only, truly innovative capacity of the organization, the human that is leading the transformation, using the technology to be effective and working together with others to create an effective, relevant, and affordable Air Force of the future.

RNLAF 3.0 is more than the introduction of new weapons or closing locations. The business will be redeveloped. In the future, to be able to achieve high-quality training, despite the increasing complexity of military action, rising operating costs, and increasing peace constraints, new training concepts will be introduced. Furthermore, new maintenance concepts have to ensure the high availability of weapon systems will be achieved at manageable operating costs, and the organization and implementation of our platform tasks will be renewed to realize flexibility at the lowest cost.

‘Sit back and relax is not an option.’

As you indicated before, this technology progress will, sooner or later, lead to significantly enhanced situational awareness and understanding, by third and fourth dimension means. That promises quite a bit for the RNLAF. How do you see the integration of all these new innovative technologies in your organization?

Over the last decades, military operations are showing a shift towards smaller, more rapidly deployable units. In this field, the use of the air and the space domains plays an increasingly important role. The third and fourth dimensions offer unique advantages for obtaining situational awareness, transport, assault, and defence.

My expectation is that the new developments in the field of communication and information technologies, sensors, unmanned systems, and the use of space will further increase the importance of air power in the decades to come. The development of the operational capabilities of the RNLAF focuses on optimizing the use of the third and fourth dimensions – air and space to influence (potential) conflicts. By achieving 100 per cent situational awareness, scalability, and precision, the intended effects can be identified and achieved with managed and minimal risk and collateral damage. A prerequisite is improving C4ISR capabilities, integrating all operational capabilities and creating maximum flexibility by combining the characteristics of airpower: height, speed, and range. A first step will be the development of a NASOC (see info box), which will make the change from a platform-centric to an information-centric approach.

NASOC is the National Air & Space Operations Centre. Its core tasks are:

  • Information platform for all aerospace operations.
  • Autonomous access to all weapon systems and sensors.
  • Information synchronization.
  • Sharing information.

To continue being operationally effective, despite the small numbers of the RNLAF, people and technology should be matched, and should have the best equipment. Adaptability – continuous updating and improving of our operational capabilities – is therefore a continuing priority.

‘Adaptability is crucial!’

In the next decade we will be aiming at the improvement and renewal of capabilities, in particular the improvement of the observation capabilities, both with regards to the range, duration of observation, distinctiveness, as to the use of a larger portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We will concentrate on several domains: the ability to operate in information networks, further increasing precision, independent of place, time, and meteorological conditions; the development of non-lethal deployment means; increasing the use of unmanned systems, not only for observation but possibly also for armed deployment and air transport; and developing capacities to secure access to and use of the space and defence against threats from space.

In your introduction you indicated that people are central to all of this, but as of now it is all about technology and capabilities. What can your people expect, or, even better, what is furthermore expected from your people with all these upcoming changes?

‘RNLAF 3.0 is a revolution through social and cultural innovation!’

As a result of the pace of change, the traditional processes and methods of the RNLAF organization – and the defence organization – are no longer sufficient. To make it possible for the RNLAF 3.0 airmen and -women to use their knowledge, skills and experience within the organization we will redevelop it in an innovative way. Where possible, hierarchical structures will be replaced by flexible and adaptive networks that make the best use of available capacity and give substance to the cooperation. Management will be based on trust rather than control. Thereby, the leadership determines the effect to be achieved, while the network determines the most effective and efficient manner to achieve the effect.

In order to respond better and faster to external developments, planning processes will be rearranged. Complex requirement and procurement processes will then be adapted to rapidly respond to current technological developments.

In addition, within the RNLAF, an innovation platform has been founded with the aim to increase the innovative capacity of the organization as a whole by providing support to innovative ideas, creative solutions, and new ways of thinking and acting. This makes us able to keep up with developments and – better yet – get ahead of what the future will bring us, so we can get a better hold on it. It is not enough to emphasize the importance of innovation. We also need to do something.

Hereby, the various actions are directed toward the airmen and -women by ensuring that innovative people from all layers of the organization are involved and that all employees are involved in the innovation process, to the culture by fostering an innovative environment where there is room for new ideas, and to the processes by ensuring that the conditions are set by which promising ideas can be taken up expeditiously and developed.

‘Radical innovation is a must!’

At the same time, the innovation platform looks at future technological developments. This is done on two distinct tracks: incremental and radical innovation. The incremental track focuses on short term (< 2 years) opportunities to improve performance by fine tuning existing systems and processes. Radical innovation aims to develop new breakthrough technologies that will, in the mid to long term, enable the Air Force to achieve performance levels formerly thought impossible. A guiding principle for all our innovation is the concept of ‘singularity’, a term that refers to a hypothetical point in the future when artificial intelligence will surpass human. From this perspective we’ll look further into the future at issues like artificial intelligence, advanced human-machine interaction, nanotechnology, large-scale connectivity, and parallel computing, energy, and the consequences for both the world in which we operate and for the Air Force in particular.

All initiatives together will deliver a contribution to the innovative capacity of our organization in order to remain effective, relevant, and affordable.

But as you already mentioned, the RNLAF is a small organization. What is the shelf life of these ideas in the much larger world outside the RNLAF and in an international context like NATO?

‘Just buying the next generation is not enough.’

To perform our mission and achieve our vision, we are depending on cooperation with numerous agencies within and outside the defence organization. Such cooperation is not an end in itself but a means to increase our effectiveness within the available frameworks. These dependencies don’t make us weaker but strengthen us. By interweaving ourselves with our surrounding partners and building what is in essence a security ecosystem, we strengthen the base, and we are less vulnerable to developments in the world around us. Instead of a customer or supplier, we are a partner. By combining our strengths with those of our partners, we will achieve the maximum result within our means. We will make sure that cooperation will lead to increased effectiveness and not to some sort of budget cut.

To expand existing cooperation and to create new partnerships, we of course also look to effective partnerships with our allies. Where possible, we are improving our capabilities by embedding them internationally, as in the European Air Transport Command (EATC) or Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) C-17. We are working together in an international context for a new Multi-Role Tanker Transport capacity. Where there are synergetic opportunities, we integrate our units in international operations, letting scarce skills be used as effectively as possible. Within the context of the European Air Chiefs (EURAC) and European Air Group (EAG), we give direction to the joint development of the European Air Forces. The RNLAF Vision for International Military Cooperation reflects our priorities for international cooperation for the coming years.

At the same time we will not avoid other collaborations. To increase effectiveness and reduce life cycle costs, the principle is that new capabilities will be acquired or developed as much as possible within international partnerships. Where effective and efficient use of our resources can be increased, we will also enter public-private partnerships.

‘… creating an Aerospace cluster with a common intent and vision, and where information sharing is the norm.’

With research institutes and industry, we cooperate within the Aerospace cluster to monitor relevant developments and, where possible, to deploy innovative improvements. Via optimal use of the innovative strength of those parties, we increase the effectiveness of the RNLAF as an advanced and effective Air Force. Hence, we also strengthen the competitiveness of The Netherlands, by contributing to the development of the Netherlands as a country of innovation in general and, more specifically, in the field of aerospace. By strengthening cooperation with research and training institutes, we also anticipate a better availability of sufficient numbers of well-trained technical staff.

Your mandate as Commander of the RNLAF ends this year. What is the message you want to give to the air forces in general and to the staff of your own air force in particular?

‘Allow your plans to fail, but … learn from it!’

The lively Air Force 3.0 debate expanded quickly and continuously. Important concepts such as 100 per cent situational awareness and understanding, exponential technological growth and the shifting security ecosystem were incorporated. This led us to conclude that a broader discussion regarding strategic security thinking was needed.

Most of the discussions that absorb us today still focus primarily on the Air Force as we know it. We feel that the exponential changes we are starting to observe around us today increasingly demand a broader discussion about what the Air Force of tomorrow might look like. In this discussion we have to be willing and able to envision significant changes in our own mindset: who we are, what we do, and how we do it. But we also increasingly feel that it is no longer possible to separate this debate from a more comprehensive and maybe even more fundamental debate on our future as security and defence professionals. We want to position ourselves increasingly as responsible custodians of a broader security ecosystem encompassing a much broader range of actors who, consciously or even unconsciously, are involved in the security field.

We hope to trigger a broader discussion across the defence and security spectrum. We are acutely and painfully aware that we do not have all the answers. We are but one stakeholder – one stovepipe in a much broader ecosystem. A stovepipe that has been as fiercely parochial in our recent debates as our counterparts have been. But we want to start moving beyond the stovepipe austerity debates into a comprehensive balance of investment debates. The world is changing. If we wish to stay ahead of the curve, now is the time to start this discussion. We feel we would be neglecting our civic and professional responsibility as airmen and airwomen, as soldiers and defence and security professionals, if we did not at least try to stimulate this discussion.

Sir, thank you for your time and your comments.

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Lieutenant General (ret.)
Commander, Royal Netherlands Air Force (2012-2016)

Lieutenant General (ret.) Alexander Schnitger was in charge of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) from March 2012 to June 2016. In 2012 the cutbacks in defence expenditure had come to a head. Therefore, his top priority was to steer the men and women of the RNLAF through this austerity campaign while maintaining relevance, readiness and affordability of the strike power of the Air Force. His personal creed is: ‘People Matter.’ That is why the key aspects in the evolution of the Air Force in the coming years will be creating trust and pioneer spirit, scope and cohesion, authenticity and diversity in leadership.

Information provided is current as of June 2016

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