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Indonesia adopts strategic approach to upgrading, replacing defense assets

Tom Abke

Indonesia’s defense modernization is evolving from an effort aimed at upgrading a broad inventory of assets to a strategic approach that prioritizes capability maintenance, according to analysts and government officials. The change factors current threats and conditions, partnerships and budgetary realities, they said.

Larger assets including frigates and fighter jets will be procured as scheduled by the third and final stage of the nation’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint, officials say, with the new approach guiding the way forward.

“There’s an ongoing conversation between the Ministry of Defense and the service headquarters on how to move forward with a new model basically to replace the MEF,” Evan Laksmana, a defense analyst at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told FORUM. Replacing or upgrading systems is the top priority, he said, followed closely by bolstering capabilities to meet operational demands such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, piracy, illegal fishing and border violations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is driving the modernization approach. In late 2020, he tasked Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto with preparing a 25-year master plan to deliver the “totality of defense capabilities,” reported Tempo, a Jakarta, Indonesia-based online news service. (Pictured: Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects troops during a ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the nation’s military in Jakarta in October 2019.)

Although the country’s defense budget has been rising — reaching a “spending ceiling allocation” of about U.S. $9.5 billion in 2021 — a package of foreign loans will be needed to meet the current procurement schedule, Tempo reported.

The Indonesian Air Force plans to buy 36 each of the Dassault Rafale and Boeing F-15EX Advanced Eagle multirole fighters, 15 Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft and two Airbus A330 multirole tanker transport planes during the next four years, according to the defense news website Janes. The Indonesian Navy, meanwhile, announced in June 2021 the forthcoming purchase of eight frigates from Italy. The Navy is also under contract to buy three Type 209 Nagapasa-class submarines from South Korea.

Laksmana said that Indonesia’s need to replace its aging defense hardware was tragically illustrated when its 40-year-old KRI Nanggala submarine sank as the result of a mechanical failure during a training exercise in April 2021, killing all 53 crew members.

Laksmana expects the new master plan to include funding for existing programs to patrol the nation’s islands and waterways in cooperation with neighboring militaries. Such programs include: the INDOMALPHI air and sea patrols involving Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines; the Malacca Strait Patrols framework of air and sea patrols and intelligence sharing involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand; and the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement, a treaty signed by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to mitigate terrorism in the Sulu Sea region with maritime and air patrols.

“I think these types of small-scale security cooperation absolutely make sense,” he said. “The threats are there. They’re not strategic threats in the sense of existential to the state, but they are a daily operational concern that we share with our neighbors.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.



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