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Text Captain Charlotte Swift
Photograph Sergeant Major Cynthia Nijsen
What goes on behind the walls of the Security Operations Center
The Plein Kalvermark complex in The Hague looks deserted at first glance this Thursday evening, but if you look closely, you can see a light bulb in the back corner of the building. Here, at the Defense Operations Center (DOC), the lights never go out. This department of the Ministry of Defense is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But what exactly goes on behind the walls, not even most colleagues at ‘The Hack’ know. The Defense Journal looks behind the scenes at the beating heart of the armed forces.
We had to register because we couldn’t enter the DOC with our own access pass. The double turnstiles at the entrance to the department are not the epitome of a warm welcome. It all seems a bit mysterious.
“Mystery? No”, laughs deputy Martin Folkens. “There is nothing secret about the work we do. The information we work with here is classified. So all these activities.”
Fokkens and his fellow Major Joost Enter welcome us tonight with open arms. They both speak with joy and passion about the work they have been doing for nearly two years and want to remove any hint of mystery surrounding the DOC. Well, somewhat later. Screens with classified information also go in front of us, and phones end up safe and secure. Ethics.
DOC is part of the Directorate of Operations (DOPS). In the control room here in The Hague, ongoing military operations involving the Netherlands are monitored 24 hours a day. We are talking about almost 900 players in 17 countries. “By all information we mean literally all. From a sprained ankle or an outbreak of the stomach flu to sensitive intelligence and broken equipment. We all want to know,” Fokkens insists.
Colleagues at home and abroad keep DOC informed of these matters through daily updates. Enter: “Here we distill important information to the Chief of the Armed Forces (CDS, Ed.). Our director hands over this package to him every morning.
Additionally, DOC monitors ‘incident reports’ submitted by military personnel. Even apparently innocent statements are carefully scrutinized. “If a soldier who sprained an ankle during the course of an interception is a critical player, it can affect our readiness,” explains Enter. “These are also important issues for CDS.”
Reports and daily updates arrive at DOC through dozens of screens, mailboxes and digital messaging services. Secure phone lines are available for emergencies. If one of the phones in the corner rings, it’s not good news.
All hands on deck
Unfortunately that happened too many times. Among others, after the NH90 helicopter crash in July 2020. Last summer, during weapons maintenance in both the killing of Dutch commandos in the United States and the fatal wounding of a soldier from the 11th Airmobile Brigade in Iraq. In such a situation, it is all in the hands. Urgent message will be immediately sent to select group including CDS of course. If there is no response by midnight, concerned colleagues are mercilessly called out of bed.
A Crisis Action Committee (CAT) may be activated if necessary. All department heads of DOPS are represented in this committee. This happened, for example, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
For Fokkens and his colleagues, the attention during such a crisis is mainly carefully handed over to CAT. “That precision is very important in everything we do,” emphasizes Marechaussee. I was on duty with the soldiers in Iraq when it happened. Before approaching the parents of the corporate social work boy, I want to finish the film first. You want to know how he is now and what will happen next.
The privacy of the colleagues involved is also important when processing such reports. They are not mentioned by name in the updates, but the staff number and the group with which the information is shared is intentionally small. Enter: “This is not a disbelief of other colleagues, but you should not think that family members will hear such news through the media.”
The rapid spread of news is one of the reasons why CDS must always be aware of what is happening in the world around its people. At the same time, some things cannot be shared (yet). It’s sometimes very frustrating, Enter admits. “Then on the way home there’s a news on the radio in the car, and I know it’s not right. You’d want to call the station, but it’s definitely not possible. Their own home front is left in the dark. “If there’s anything on the news, they say: You already know this, don’t you? “
That secrecy and transitions make the job difficult at times, but at the same time it’s the reason the two moved to the DOC. No day is the same. A quiet transition can easily turn into an amazing night. ‘Good’ may be the wrong word, but everyone agrees that ‘it’s exciting’.
Well, while we’re at it: DOC is still looking for people. At present, seven teams of three army colleagues man the 24-hour shifts, but one more team will definitely be needed. Rank or suit color doesn’t matter. A good dose of interest, work and life experience is a plus. “Oh, of course you can handle stressful situations”, Fokkens concludes. “It’s definitely a super responsible job, but great!”
“Explorer. Devoted travel specialist. Web expert. Organizer. Social media geek. Coffee enthusiast. Extreme troublemaker. Food trailblazer. Total bacon buff.”