MELBOURNE, Australia — The recent loss of a 40-year-old Indonesian submarine has highlighted the need for the Southeast Asian nation to replace many of its military platforms, but plans to do so have been stymied by budget shortfalls and a lack of adherence to its long-term vision.
The sinking of the KRI Nanggala in late April, along with the deaths of 53 personnel onboard during a torpedo-firing exercise, prompted debate among Indonesia defense analysts about the state of its armed forces. In particular, some worried about the continued use of aging equipment such as the German-built Type 209 submarine, which was in its fourth decade of service when it sank for unknown reasons.
Among those analysts is Muhamad Haripin, a defense and security researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, who said on Singapore’s Channel News Asia that Indonesia has resorted to keeping aged equipment in service and acquiring secondhand systems because it has a fiscally strained budget dedicated to the defense of its territory and surrounding waters.
However, Al Araf and Hussein Ahmad from the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor described the situation as risky to the lives of Indonesia’s military personnel, calling it a “thorn in the side” of military modernization efforts in a piece published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post newspaper.
This incident involving the KRI Nanggala follows the sinking of a 1970s-era former East German landing ship in rough seas in July 2020, along with a series of crashes of Indonesian-owned, BAE Systems-made Hawk trainer/light-attack jets in recent years.
Indonesia, which is comprised of more than 17,000 islands, has ambitious plans to recapitalize its military. Its Minimum Essential Force plan calls for a 274-ship “green water” Navy, 10 fighter squadrons as part of a major upgrade to its air combat capability and 12 new diesel–electric submarines, among other things.
The plans also calls for the continued development of the local defense industry, with Indonesia in theory prioritizing acquisitions from local companies that contain a workshare for domestic firms or, failing that, offsets in the form of technology transfers or industrial cooperation.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic battered Indonesia and its economy, and the ongoing spread of the disease will likely again put pressure on the government’s defense budget — just as it began a slow recovery following years of anemic growth. The country has allocated $9.2 billion for defense in 2021.
Also contributing to the slow pace of recapitalization are high-profile vanity acquisitions by senior military leaders, often with political ambitions in mind, as opposed to practical solutions geared for fiscal and logistical realities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Indonesia’s attempts to beef up its air combat arm. Its fighter force continues to dwindle following the retirement of a handful of Northrop Grumman F-5E/F Tiger II interceptors, leaving two squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons and one of Sukhoi Su-27/30 fighter jets as its only front-line combat aircraft.
The country had initially decided on the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E interceptor, only to stall on signing the contract due to fears of attracting U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targets countries doing business with nations such as Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Indonesia subsequently acquired 24 former U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard F-16C/D fighter jets under the Pentagon’s Excess Defense Articles scheme. The jets were then upgraded with improved radars and other avionics.
It also signed on to be a development partner with Korea Aerospace Industries for South Korea’s KF-X fighter, pledging to pay 20 percent of development costs in exchange for industrial benefits and production aircraft. However, it has since lagged behind in payments to South Korea for its share of development costs and shied away from committing to more F-16s.
Instead, it has flirted with other fighter types ranging from Eurofighter Typhoons offloaded by Austria, France’s Dassault Rafale and the Boeing F-15EX Eagle. The latter was mentioned by Air Chief Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo days after the first jet for the U.S. Air Force made its first flight.
Prasetyo was quoted by media as saying the Indonesian Air Force is prioritizing capability improvements instead of just increasing its inventory.
While this might be the case, new versions of the F-16 and even the KF-X would also represent a substantial leap in capability without the higher acquisition and operating costs of more complex aircraft.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.