Indonesia’s bid to modernize its military’s primary weapons system (alutsista), both to replace aging weaponry and keep up with regional dynamics, took a new turn last week.
Early on Tuesday, the United States Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) made a surprise announcement that the US State Department had approved the sale of eight MV-22 Block C Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to Indonesia, as well as the corresponding systems, spare parts and training. The deal is worth approximately US$2 billion.
The DSCA’s announcement means that Indonesia had formally sent a request sometime in the past, although it is unclear when or for which service or unit.
The announcement came not long after Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto visited Moscow on June 23. Prabowo held talks with Russian Defense Deputy Minister Alexander Formin and attended the Victory Day parade, which marked the end of World War II in Europe – or the Great Patriotic War in Russian parlance.
The choice of the Osprey is surprising because of its reliability and safety problems, having been involved in various fatal crashes. The aircraft, jointly produced by Bell and Boeing, however, does offer a unique capability.
A tiltrotor is a hybrid aircraft that can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter and, while underway, can fly as fast and as far as a turboprop airplane. The Osprey achieves this capability by tilting its engines, which are placed on the tips of its wings.
With a top speed of about 500 kilometers per hour, the Osprey flies twice the speed of the fastest helicopters that the Indonesian Military (TNI) uses. The Osprey’s range – some 1,600 km – is also an advantage that suits the TNI’s needs.
A second surprise came later on Tuesday, when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told his Cabinet to stop all imports of medical and military equipment and to buy from domestic producers instead.
Jokowi wants the TNI to procure aircraft from PT Dirgantara Indonesia, warships from PT PAL and small weapons and armored vehicles from PT Pindad. These are all state enterprises and are classified as national strategic industries.
There is, in fact, nothing new about Jokowi’s request, as Law No. 16/2012 on the defense industry mandates domestic procurement of defense equipment. His predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono revitalized the national defense industry, mostly through SOEs, in 2009. The effort continued in 2010 with the establishment of the Defense Industry Policy Committee (KKIP), which is chaired by the President.
Jokowi should have an easier job developing the local defense industry than previous presidents. All he has to do is ensure that all ministries and state agencies – not just the Defense Ministry and the TNI – buy their defense and security equipment locally. The National Police, for example, has managed to avoid buying weapons locally as its budget has no external supervision.
Jokowi, however, must be aware that only one third of the defense budget has been allocated for arms procurement. About half of the budget is for recurring costs. The budget covers not only the Defense Ministry but also the TNI headquarters and the three branches of the military.
On Wednesday, Jokowi set ambitious goals in a speech to military and police cadets. He wanted the TNI to follow the latest developments in military technology by applying artificial intelligence, automation and big data.
Jokowi, who envisions Indonesia’s mastery of Industry 4.0, said technological disruption had affected all aspects of life, including the military and weapons systems. Modern warfare increasingly uses the power of the internet through network-centric warfare that links all weapons systems together to get a clearer picture of military operations.
Separately, Russian Ambassador to Indonesia Lyudmila Vorobieva said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday that the contract for 11 Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker heavy jet fighters, worth some $1.14 billion, was still in place.
Despite Prabowo’s latest visit to Moscow, little progress has been made in the Sukhoi deal in the face of possible US sanctions through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). A media report in February 2020 said that Washington was threatening Jakarta with sanctions if the Su-35 purchase continued and had offered the latest iteration of the F-16 Fighting Falcon instead.
Then-Air Force chief of staff Air Chief Marshal Yuyu Sutisna said in October 2019 that Indonesia would buy two squadrons of F-16 Block 72 Vipers. However, he added that the Su-35 was still on the shopping list to maintain an East-West balance.
Indonesia, however, has reportedly opted for F-35 Lightning II stealth jet fighters, which some observers say are overpriced and tend to underperform.
Washington appears to be trying to keep Jakarta in check to maintain regional balance. It is an open secret that Washington does not want Jakarta to improve its defense capabilities to approach those of Singapore and Canberra. Australia has received 24 F-35s from its order of 72, while Singapore received clearance for military purchases in a DCSA announcement on Jan. 9.
As Jokowi hits the brakes on foreign defense procurement, he should demonstrate his commitment to the Indonesian defense industry and devise a plan to empower both state and private players by placing enough orders to allow them to augment their operations and increase their capabilities to produce more complex and strategic weapon systems.
Developing a heavy metal industrial base is a long, arduous and risky path, much more so than the digital start-ups Jokowi has been championing.
The President should see where he can expedite national defense manufacturing to fulfill the needs of the TNI, the National Police and other state agencies and ministries. He is, after all, the KKIP chairman.
Staff writer at The Jakarta PostArtikel Asli