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Indonesia 125B dollars air naval splurge may mean 50 warships at sea in next 2 years

By Colin Clark on January 28, 2022 at 9:08 AM

Amidst incursions by China into Indonesia's Extended Economic Zone, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is looking for a major investment in military gear.

The Boeing F-15EX is on Indonesia’s wish-list. (Boeing)

SYDNEY: For the first time in decades, Indonesia appears ready to significantly improve its air and naval capabilities, with early commitments of spending $125 billion over the next 20-plus years.

Defense minister Prabowo Subianto was quoted in an English-language website Jan. 27 saying that he has told Indonesia’s president that the country will have “up to 50 warships” in the next two years. Sadly, no details were available as to what kinds of “warships” he might have meant, whether frigates and destroyers or offshore patrol craft. It may, suggests one analyst who asked not to be identified, simply mean Indonesia’s navy will have 50 ships ready to go to sea at any one time.

What seems clear is that the loss last year of one of Indonesia’s aging submarines, combined with China’s persistent and aggressive breaching of Indonesia’s Extended Economic Zone, seems to have provided the impetus to Prabowo and President Joko Widodo to push for serious budgetary commitments.

The list of desired weapons includes several squadrons of French Rafale and Boeing’s F-15EX fighters. Prabowo has already signed deals for two British Arrowhead 140 frigates, to 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 to the $125 billion was contained in a document, “Fulfilling the Defence and Security Equipment Needs of the Ministry of Defence and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) 2020-24,” released in June last year.

“You’ve got a defense minister with a military background, and he’s been very active — particularly during the pandemic — making trips overseas, trying to shore up defense ties,” says Natalie Sambhi, an Australian expert on Indonesia’s national security, 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 that, but at the end of the day he has been very active in actually pushing forward this modernization program.” (Prabowo is widely assumed to be eyeing a run for president.)

While recent incursions into Indonesia’s EEZ by Chinese vessels and others appear to give Prabowo’s defense buildup a chance of happening, significant systemic and political factors stand in the way.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the deal over the long term is the simple fact that the army comprises the vast majority of Indonesia’s armed forces. And the army, say several experts on Indonesian security, is more interested in its relationship with the Indonesian people, upon whom it relies to provide defense in depth against an adversary, and on its own local weapons spending.

The army’s dominance “tends to create some obstacles to meeting the higher-tech needs of the navy and air force,” notes Robert Cribb, a history professor at Australian National University. Couple that with a deep commitment by the army and the government over time towards prioritizing procurement of indigenous weapons, and there may be substantial obstacles to the plan in the long run. Sambhi and Cribb also point to a deep-seated belief by many Indonesians that, in Cribb’s words, “money spent on improving welfare is a better defense investment than hardware.”

But counterbalancing those factors is the simple belief that letting other countries routinely pilfer its fisheries and otherwise infringe on its sovereignty just isn’t acceptable. “Indonesia knows it’s never going to have sufficient naval capabilities to repel the Chinese attacks effectively, but it has to do something,” Sambhi says.

Both analysts agree the money won’t be part of the regular government budget, raising questions about where, exactly, it could come from.

“The assurance is that it’s not going to compromise take away money that is supposed to go to health care and other socioeconomic spending,” says Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “They are faced with this conundrum that, on the one hand, after the sinking of the submarine, they’re expected to ramp up spending. But on the other hand, the public is always asking them about whether they have spent a bit too little on health care and other socioeconomic priorities.”

The solution appears to be that Indonesia will rely on loans, with some of the money raised through the sale of domestic bonds. Koh expects some final decisions by Indonesia about just what to buy in the next two or three years.

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