On 13 September the Swedish government aircraft landed at Umeå airport carrying samples for analysis at FOI’s chemical laboratory in order to establish whether chemical agents had been used in the conflict in Syria.
“It feels very special to be head of an organisation which, during those hectic days at the beginning of September, had the eyes of the whole world upon it,” says Director General Jan-Olof Lind.
At that time the focus was on Great Power politics, as the United States had threatened to strike Syria if its government was found to have used chemical weapons. Even though the situation had quietened down somewhat by the time confirmation reached the UN Secretary General that sarin had been used, this was a huge success for FOI.
“Actually the scientists at Umeå were engaged on a task for which they had worked and prepared for a long time. But over and above the fact that they carried out the analysis work in a professional way, we also managed to take care of the difficult logistic aspects and to handle the political pressures while constantly under intense pressure from the media. All this reflects a great deal of credit on FOI and strengthens our reputation as an independent authority with a high level of competence and integrity and one which can carry out major operational tasks in a very short time,” says Jan-Olof Lind.
Civil becomes military
During the past year FOI has attracted international attention for its work in researching areas extending across the boundaries between civil and military science, so-called “dual-use” research. This has largely been the result of an increase in the effort devoted to scanning the latest topics and trends on the research front both in Sweden and abroad, not least in monitoring the EU’s research in fields such as space, IT and artificial intelligence.
“Hitherto the Swedish Armed Forces have most often funded the research and we have subsequently identified civil applications. Now it has become increasingly important to see what is happening in the civil research environment in order to look at possible ways of utilising the results in military applications. We at FOI enjoy the unique advantage of being able to communicate with the civil research community at universities and colleges and to carry this knowledge over to the military side and vice versa,” says Jan-Olof Lind and he quotes an EU funded research project as an example.
It is a project which aims to raise the level of security in ports through the integration of sensors and information systems. The results will also be of use in military applications involving coordination between different systems. The need for dual use research has increased since so many European countries have had to cut back their defence research ambitions and reduce the extent of their international cooperation activities. For FOI this makes better coordination even more important in getting the most out of international cooperation.
Skills in demand
In Sweden FOI has on a number of occasions been able to show that it possesses a range of skills that in many respects are unique. It began in the spring with the Swedish Defence Commission’s review for which FOI had provided much of the underlying documentation.
“One of the review’s conclusions was that the world today is less secure. For this reason our skills and expertise are very much in demand, not least our analyses of the world scene and our specialist knowledge of, for example, Russia, North Africa and the Middle East. Our political analysts are highly regarded and a number of our staff worked closely with the Defence Commission in the preparation of policy. Another example arose in connection with a major coordination exercise conducted under the auspices of the Counter-Terrorism Co-operative Council. The exercise included one scenario in which a number of authorities, including FOI, were faced with a terrorist-like threat.
We managed to play our role very successfully. But we also discovered that many authorities whose roles are more operational than our own, in fact needed FOI’s help, for example in the form of support in technical questions and external analysis. We were pleased that the exercise brought this out.
Cooperation with the Swedish Armed Forces
FOI’s principal customer, the Swedish Armed Forces, are in a constant state of change and this is reflected in the work of FOI. At the present moment Jan-Olof Lind can see some important changes of which FOI has to take account and which, in certain cases, can lead to the adaptation of the agency’s activities.
“The first point is that the Swedish Armed Forces have, during the past year, identified new areas requiring closer focus in the future. These include cyber/IT, space, neuroscience/artificial intelligence, unmanned systems and missile defence. It is extremely important that this should be reflected in our long-term work.
The second is that when Sweden brings its troops home from Afghanistan, we will also need to adjust our focus since our adjacent areas such as the Baltic Sea and the Arctic will assume relatively greater significance for us. Here we shall be facing many other challenges that will require knowledge of more advanced technology as well as having security implications.
As in every year, 2013 has brought some setbacks. One thing that worries Jan-Olof Lind is the financing of the long-term build-up of our knowledge base.
“For a number of years our clients have been cutting back their investments in the long-term build-up of our knowledge base, preferring instead to call for quick results. If this trend were to continue, the time would come when we would no longer be able to create new knowledge, something that I have made clear to our principal customers. Our aim is that we should, on average, be devoting 50 percent of our activities to research and the long-term accumulation of knowledge with the remainder devoted to the more direct transfer of knowledge to our clients. So far we have been able to carry out our assignments but, in the longer term, I should like to see an increase in the build-up of our knowledge base in order to ensure that we do not lose the ability to deal with future threats and possibilities.
Read more: "When FOI examined the samples from Syria"