War is changing. Although traditional conflicts are still common, today’s battlefield is becoming digital, says Dr Jeroen van der Vlugt, chief information officer at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Defence.
As a result, protecting the country and its allies from cybersecurity threats is a vital part of the Ministry’s work, van der Vlugt explains. “We have the task of defending the Netherlands and defending our partners in the physical world, but also in the cyber world.”
The changing nature of war means that digital technology expertise is becoming a matter of national security. Van der Vlugt spoke to Tech Monitor to explain how the Dutch MoD’s IT infrastructure, and the way technology is governed, are evolving to support this capability.
Whether it is cyberattacks on national infrastructure or misinformation campaigns, state actors are using virtual means to achieve their foreign policy goals. Van der Vlugt is not shy about who those state actors are: “The East, from a Western perspective,” he says – more specifically, Russia and China.
In 2007, Estonia fell victim to a huge cyberattack which left the country without access to government and commercial digital services for 22 days. More recently, hackers have launched cyber offensives against top Lithuanian officials and decision makers. In both cases, the Kremlin is believed to have been behind the attacks.
Whether or not these techniques constitute ‘war’ in the traditional sense is up for debate. Adding to the complexity is the difficulty in attributing such attacks to state actors or criminals, Van der Vlugt explains. “For instance, we saw it with the Colonial Pipeline [ransomware attack] in the US,” he says. “It was attributed to a Russian criminal organisation… which sometimes also works for the Russian government in attacking other governments.”
War or not, this changing threat requires defence ministries to adapt. “The problem is that when the conflict is changing, how can you adapt to that situation?” For Van der Vlugt, data is vital to this adaptation. “Anyone who has the best information at the right time… will win the war,” he says.
Anyone who has the best information at the right time will win the war.
As a result, the Dutch MoD is implementing “new data platforms to exchange information between our modern weapon systems.” This includes systems that process the vast volumes of data created by sensors embedded in military equipment, such as the F-35 or MQ-9 aircraft or new sea vessels, to help commanders make decisions. Meanwhile, the Ministry is renewing its whole IT infrastructure, deploying private cloud infrastructure in new data centres.
Van der Vlugt cannot divulge which data platforms it is using: “That would harm our position,” he says. And indeed, the growing digitisation of military operations is both an opportunity and a threat, he says. By interfering with data or algorithms, an adversary could influence military strategy. But this is a double-edged sword: “It is also giving us an opportunity to do the same with our competitors,” says Van der Vlugt.
Netherlands’ MoD CIO on winning a seat on the board
When van der Vlugt joined the Dutch MoD in early 2020, the CIO position did not have a seat at the executive board. This, he says, meant that technology expertise was not given sufficient priority.
“When you are reporting to a CFO or other person, you are not in the right position to discuss IT, data and cyber at board level,” he explains. “That is a very important lesson I’ve learned and I think every CIO should have a seat at the table.”
But since joining, van der Vlugt has secured a seat on both the MoD’s executive board and its Board of Defence, a specific committee responsible for defence and capability planning and procurement. As a result, his technology expertise feeds into discussions of budget and organisation priorities, and helped shape the MoD’s Defence Vision 2035 strategy.
Van der Vlugt’s department also initiated a skills gap analysis to identify the state of IT, cybersecurity and data skills among the staff in the organisation, and where improvements are needed.
One area of focus has been the Ministry’s senior leadership. New recruits join the military at a young age, typically in their late teens. As a result, today’s senior officers joined 20 or 30 years ago, when the strategic technologies of the current era were still nascent. “You have to educate the top leadership of the organisation about cyber, data science and AI because when you don’t do that, they still will make decisions which are not meant for future war fighting.”
The Dutch MoD also provides cybersecurity and data science training for its civilian employees. As part of its defence cyber strategy, the Ministry trains all staff to make them aware of the benefits and risks of the digital era. “We provide data science modules to everybody within the Ministry of Defence,” van der Vlugt explains. “We do the same for cyber-related matters so everybody is entitled to contact those education courses.”
This underscores van der Vlugt’s view that “data-centric warfare” will define the conflicts of the future, and countries that have the infrastructure and ability to exploit data will be the victors.