Trade and industry, National security | Southeast Asia

28 August 2020

There are many reasons behind the push for a modernisation of Indonesia’s defence, but an impulsive approach to procuring weapons could cause problems for the country down the line, Muhamad Arif and Tangguh Chairil write.

Indonesia’s impulsive attempts to purchase jet fighters has gained attention over recent months. In the latest development, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto approached his Austrian counterpart to express his interest to acquire the latter’s 15 Eurofighter Typhoons.

Critics have found the decision puzzling, and it is seen at odds with the government’s commitment to avoid purchasing second-hand weaponry. Members of parliament, meanwhile, have said that they have not been consulted about the policy.

Aside from the Typhoons, Indonesia has already had various types of fighters in its list of procurement. Indonesia is co-developing new KF-X fighters with South Korea, a project which has just got back on track. It is also still committed to purchasing Russia’s Su-35 fighters, despite the threat of American sanctions. There were also reports that the Air Force was interested in buying two squadrons of F-16 Viper from the United States and that Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto was interested in buying 48 of France’s Dassault Rafale.

So why has this happened? Well, Indonesia’s weapons procurement and its broader foreign and security policy are always a result of a complex interplay between external and domestic factors.

Like other countries in the region with ongoing military modernisation programmes, Indonesia’s expanding wish list of weaponry is made possible by the growing size of the international arms trade. In the period 2015-2019, global weapons trade volume was 5.5 per cent higher than in the period 2010 to 2014 and 20 per cent higher than from 2005 to 2009.

Growing demand has been matched by the rising number of sellers, giving more options to the potential buyers. In this regard, nothing is special about how Indonesia recently conducts its arms trade.

More on this: Is American assertiveness in the South China Sea good for Indonesia?

Indonesia’s recent military activism is also in line with the country’s increasingly outward-looking defence policies. While internal security should not be entirely dismissed, it has become apparent to defence policymakers that the country is not immune from regional security threats, especially when it comes to safeguarding Indonesian territorial integrity amidst the tension in the South China Sea.

But this is not the only thing at play. In the domestic context, there are several push factors. For one thing, Indonesia has been trying to diversify its weapons suppliers over the last two decades to avoid over-reliance on any single supplier.

A long embargo put in place by the United States in 1999 is no longer in force, but it’s had a clear effect on Indonesia’s contemporary strategic culture and outlook.

On top of that, there is a political consensus that Indonesia needs to localise arms manufacturing as much as possible by strengthening its own domestic defence industrial base. The 2012 Defence Industry Law sets a number of conditions in which the government can purchase foreign arms, such as the use of local content and offset deals.

Finally, this push for Indonesian military modernisation can be associated with the personal motivation of Defence Minister Prabowo himself. Easily one of the most well-read defence ministers in post-reform Indonesia with strong knowledge on strategic affairs, Minister Prabowo has been actively trying to expand Indonesia’s defence diplomacy portfolio.

He frequently travels abroad and holds meetings with foreign representatives in Jakarta. Moreover, while Indonesia’s domestic politics is surely full of plot twists, Prabowo is believed to still have an eye for the 2024 presidential election, and his arch-rival, current President Joko Widodo, can no longer run. If so, it is understandable that he is eager to make his mark.

More on this: US-Indonesia defence ties at a turning point

While understandable, Indonesia’s impulsive approach to weapons procurement could have negative implications down the road in at least two aspects: Air Force operations and defence industry development.

First, Indonesia’s plan to acquire Eurofighter Typhoons will complicate the operational, personnel, and logistical aspects of the current Indonesian Air Force’s inventory. The Indonesian Air Force is now operating a wide range of multirole and light attack fighter aircrafts, including the United States-produced F-16 Fighting Falcons, Russian Su-27s and Su-30s, EMB-314s from Brazil, Hawk Mk109s/Mk209s from the United Kingdom, as well as T-50i Golden Eagles from South Korea.

Adding yet another fighter model from a different origin into the mix could put interoperability at risk, and increase the cost associated with personnel education and maintenance. New spare part warehouses and ground support equipment for the new aircrafts will also need to be prepared. Finally, it could complicate the career patterns of officers in the Air Force.

Another concern is the implications purchasing foreign weapons has on the domestic defence industry. For instance, since Austria is not the original manufacturer of the Typhoons, buying from them means that options are limited for Indonesia in terms of offset arrangements and the transfer of technology.

Finally, the Defence Industry Policy Committee (KKIP) is currently inactive, and has been since the last executive team was dismissed in February. The Committee is tasked with, among other things, evaluating whether each defence procurement would support the domestic defence industry. Proceeding with the plan to buy the Typhoons without consultation with the KKIP could set a negative precedent in terms of the defence industry governance.

This recent development is just one example, but if this trend continues then the long-term trajectory of Indonesian military modernisation is far from certain. While Indonesia is likely to continue adding new weapon systems into its inventory in response to volatile regional security dynamics, the details and timelines of these policies are susceptible to ever-changing domestic political contexts.

In any case, the government must be careful as it steps further down the path of military modernisation, or it risks making rash decisions to procure weapons that may do Indonesia’s defence apparatus more harm than good.

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