Lakana Robert Howe

Robert Howe is a senior system architect at the Ministry of Defense.

25 April

The Brainport’s unique expertise in systems and software engineering is needed to prop up the Dutch defense industry, argues Robert Howe.

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation can’t have escaped your attention. The conflicts in Ukraine, Israel and the Red Sea are the most prominent examples. But beyond that, it seems that we’re entering an era where democracy is on the wane and dictatorships are on the rise, with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea (CRINKs), among others, strengthening their ties.

As a nation, we’re fortunate to have been affected by the current conflicts only indirectly. The question is, how long will we remain unaffected? Europe has depended on the US for its security since the end of WWII, and Europe’s armed forces have suffered decades of cutbacks and downscaling. For example, The Royal Netherlands Army (RNLA) has been reduced in size from 100,000 to 40,000 soldiers since the end of the Cold War, with a disproportionate decrease in its operational capability.

But the US increasingly has other things and fronts on its mind. For anyone who has read the book “Chip war,” there can be no doubt that China intends to annex Taiwan, an action that will bring it into direct conflict with the US. Assessing the overall situation and comparing it with the events that led to WWII, the historian Niall Ferguson has warned that we’re very close to a Third World War. With a war already in progress on its eastern flank, Europe must learn to take responsibility for its security and urgently strengthen its military capabilities. One way to do this is through innovation, particularly in high-tech systems and software.

I recently attended the RNLA’s Next Generation Concept Development event, a showcase of military innovation projects, where I joined a group of generals, including Lt-General Jan Swillens, the new head of the army, touring the exhibits. Later, in his closing speech, Lt-General Swillens pointed out that the defense of our country isn’t just the responsibility of the military but also that of Dutch businesses, knowledge institutes and local government. Only by working together can we ensure the long-term security of our way of life.

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For the last ten years, I’ve argued that the Netherlands, particularly the Brainport region, is a world leader in systems and software engineering and creating cyber-physical systems. Now, the opportunity has arisen for this claim to be proven. Last November, I was appointed technical head of an RNLA program to create a Combat Unmanned Ground System (CUGS). A CUGS is a collection of heterogeneous ground robots and drones that must work together as a whole system to perform military tasks in an operational setting. The RNLA’s Robotic Autonomous Systems (RAS) R&D team has developed cutting-edge AI technology that solves a range of associated complex autonomy and mission execution problems. The CUGS program will work with an ecosystem of industrial companies and knowledge institutes to turn these solutions into an operational capability that can be manufactured and deployed to our land forces, en masse, if necessary.

The RNLA RAS R&D team has given us a competitive advantage in military autonomous systems. Now, it’s the turn of the Dutch industry to step up and contribute to turning this competitive advantage into not only a strategic deterrent but ultimately into a new high-tech systems market. Leading in this rapidly growing market (25 billion dollars in 2032) will contribute to securing both our economy and way of life and will demonstrate our global position as a leader in cyber-physical systems and software engineering.