SYDNEY: For the first time in decades, Indonesia appears poised to significantly upgrade its air and naval capabilities, with early spending commitments of $125 billion over the next 20-plus years.
Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto was quoted on an English language website on January 27 saying he told the Indonesian president that the country will have “up to 50 warships” in the next two years. Unfortunately, no details were available on what types of “warships” he might have designated, whether frigates and destroyers or offshore patrol boats. This may, suggests an analyst who asked not to be identified, simply mean that the Indonesian navy will have 50 ships ready to go to sea at any given time.
What seems clear is that last year’s loss of one of indonesia’s aging submarinescombined with China’s persistent and aggressive violation of Indonesia’s extended economic zone, appears to have provided the impetus for Prabowo and President Joko Widodo to push for serious budget commitments.
The list of desired weapons includes several squadrons of French Rafale and Boeing F-15EX fighters. Prabowo has already signed deals for two British Arrowhead 140 frigates, which will be built in Indonesia, and six Italian FREMM multi-role frigates, as well as two refurbished Italian Navy Maestrale-class light frigates.
The initial commitment of $125 billion was contained in a document titled “Meeting the Defense and Security Equipment Needs of the Ministry of Defense and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) 2020-24″, released in June this year. last.
“You have a defense minister with a military background, and he’s been very active – especially during the pandemic – taking trips abroad, trying to build defense ties,” says Natalie Sambhi, a Australian Indonesian national security expert, who is executive director of Verve Research, an independent research collective focused on security in Southeast Asia. “Yes, we can talk about his own political goals for this, but ultimately he was very active in pushing this modernization agenda forward.” (Prabowo is widely assumed to be considering a run for president.)
While recent incursions into the Indonesian EEZ by Chinese and other vessels appear to give Prabowo’s defense reinforcement a chance, significant systemic and political factors stand in the way.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the long-term deal is the simple fact that the military comprises the vast majority of Indonesia’s armed forces. And the army, say several Indonesian security experts, is more interested in its relationship with the Indonesian people, on whom it relies to provide defense in depth against an adversary, and in its own local arms expenditure. .
Dominance by the military “tends to create barriers to meeting the high-tech needs of the navy and air force,” notes Robert Cribb, professor of history at the Australian National University. Add to that a deep military and government commitment over time to prioritizing the purchase of indigenous weapons, and there could be significant roadblocks to the long-term plan. Sambhi and Cribb also point to a deeply held belief among many Indonesians that, in Cribb’s words, “money spent on improving well-being is a better defense investment than hardware.”
But offsetting these factors is the simple belief that letting other countries routinely steal its fisheries and otherwise infringe on its sovereignty is simply not acceptable. “Indonesia knows it will never have enough naval capabilities to effectively repel Chinese attacks, but it has to do something,” Sambhi said.
Both analysts agree that the money will not be part of the government’s regular budget, raising questions about exactly where the money is coming from.
“The assurance is that it won’t jeopardize the money that’s supposed to go to health care and other socio-economic expenses,” says Collin Koh, a researcher at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “They are faced with this conundrum that, on the one hand, after the sinking of the submarine, they are expected to increase their spending. But on the other hand, the public always asks them if they spent a little too little on health care and other socio-economic priorities.
The solution seems to be that Indonesia will rely on loans, with some of the money coming from the sale of national bonds. Koh expects final decisions from Indonesia on what to buy over the next two to three years.