MELBOURNE, Australia — The strange saga of Indonesia's acquisition of the Leonardo AW101 helicopter has taken a stranger twist, with photos showing the first delivered aircraft in a hangar surrounded by police tape.
The Indonesian military is investigating how a deal that should have been cancelled ended up with the delivery of the first helicopter in early February, with the new chief of Staff of the Indonesian Air Force, Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, telling local media the fate of the helicopter has yet to be decided.
Tjahjanto added that the helicopter is currently stored in a hangar at the Indonesian capital of Jakarta's Halim Perdanakusuma air base pending the completion of the investigation.
The Air Force had requested the acquisition of three AW101s for Very Very Important Person duties, or VVIP, in November 2015, even though Indonesia's Defense Industry Act obliges the military use locally manufactured defense equipment whenever possible.
State-owned aerospace company PT Dirgantara Indonesia manufactures components for the Airbus H215 Super Puma and H225 Caracal helicopters and has carried out final assembly of both types for the Indonesian armed forces, although then-Air Force Chief of Staff Air Marshall Agus Supriatna had said the late delivery of Super Pumas in 2014 and its inability to meet Air Force requirements disqualified the company from supplying the VVIP helicopters.
The proposal was nevertheless rejected by President Joko Widodo in December that year on cost grounds, which had been reported by local media to be $55 million per helicopter. The Air Force then proposed in July 2016 to acquire a single AW101, this time configured for military missions.
Then-chief of the Indonesian military Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo urged the cancellation of the planned acquisition via a written letter to Supriatna, with the president and his defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, both also speaking out against the plan.
Indonesia's Defence Industry Policy Committee also said the proposal violated the Defense Industry Act, with its head of planning, Muhammad Said Didu, noting that the AW101 purchase was done through unknown intermediaries even though the law mandated that the purchase of foreign military products be carried out via government-to-government deals or direct purchasing from original equipment manufacturers.
However, Supriatna said the acquisition of the AW101 would come out of the Air Force's fiscal 2015 budget, thus rendering Nurmantoyo's letter and the Defense Industry Act "irrelevant." He also said more helicopters will be acquired through the formal acquisition process.
The issue then dropped off the headlines until mid-December, when an AW101 with Indonesian markings was photographed carrying out a test flight from Leonardo's facilities at Yeovil in the United Kingdom. This helicopter has been traced by its construction number to be one from a cancelled Indian order.
The photo also reignited the storm in Jakarta, with Supriatna finally acknowledging that the Air Force acquired the helicopter even as Nurmantoyo told local media that he had sent a letter to Leonardo cancelling the contract.
It has never been announced how many AW101s were acquired, and Leonardo has declined comment, although Defense News understands from sources close to the program that "around 10" helicopters have already been contracted.
Nurmantoyo also said during a parliamentary hearing into the AW101 acquisition that he had no idea how the approval for the acquisition was given, claiming Defence Ministry Regulation No. 28 of 2015 effectively cut him out of the loop and that each services could submit their own purchase order to the ministry.
However, Evan Laksmana, a researcher with the Department of Politics and International Relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, told Defense News that this regulation is actually about defense posture planning and not procurement, further noting that the regulation actually stipulates that the Indonesia's armed forces chief has nine direct opportunities to influence the planning and budgeting process as requests move up the chain of command.
Laksmana also pointed out that the more worrying aspect of this episode is that it has brought into the open the tension between the minister, armed forces commander and the service chiefs, which although often spoken about among Indonesian analysts and insiders were never made public until this episode.
Just as worrying is how easily the Air Force under Supriatna managed to circumvent the regular procurement process and its attendant checks and balances.
Given that Tjahjanto, the current Air Force commander, seems to lack the enthusiasm for the AW101 shown by his predecessor, the procurement of further aircraft looks set to be cancelled, but Indonesia will need to investigate this case thoroughly to find out how this episode unfolded and if any wrongdoing occurred, and to prevent a repeat occurrence.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.