The Indonesian air force (TNI AU) announced its plan to acquire 11 Su-35s through countertrade with coffee, rubber, and crude palm oil. The first batch of the aircrafts will be delivered in 2018. In addition, the deal included the possibility for Indonesia to procure another 5 Su-35 in the future. TNI AU wants to replace its obsolete F-5 fighters with those Su-35s. The F-5s have been in service for almost four decades without significant upgrade.[i] Besides the Su-35 procurement, the Indonesian air force is currently receiving the refurbished 24 F-16 C/D block 52 from the United States which expected to be fully delivered in 2019. The F-16 deal also included training package for some of TNI AU’s pilots. Those F-16s will be based at Iswahjudi air base in Madiun, East Java province, and Rusmin Naryudin air base in Pekanbaru, Riau province. In addition, the Indonesian air force has procured T-50s from South Korea and Super Tucanos from Brazil. TNI AU also still has the long-drawn-out KFX/IFX project with the South Korean which currently delayed due to license issue.
Those procurements were part of the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) 2024 plan to modernize the air force. By 2024, the Indonesian air force aims to operate 128 jet fighters, 40 transport aircrafts, 16 surveillance aircrafts, 3 maritime patrols, 62 training aircrafts, 79 helicopters, 28 UAVs, and 32 radars. TNI AU itself is on its way to achieve the MEF 2024 objectives. In example, by 2019 the Indonesian air force is supposed to have 77 jet fighters, a combination of F-16 A/B, Su-27, Su-30, T-50s, and the new F-16 C/D as well as the upcoming Su-35.[ii] Furthermore, the combination of KT-1B Wong Bee, Super Tucano, and Grob G120 TP provides TNI AU with 53 training aircrafts. Those numbers seem provide a glimpse of optimism for the air force to complete the MEF programme in time. Despite the slender optimism, some challenges might occur in modernizing and transforming the Indonesian air force.
Challenges for TNI AU
Minor role of technology. Since its inception, the Indonesian armed forces have been perceiving itself as the people’s army. The military is inseparable with the people. The Indonesian military heavily depended heavily on the support of citizens during the country’s revolutionary war (1945-1949). Goodwill and logistical support from the local population became the primary foundation for them in executing their struggles against the adversaries. The Indonesian military, particularly the army, employed guerrilla strategy to compensate the asymmetric ability vis a vis its enemies. After the war, one of the most prominent Indonesian army generals, General Abdul Harris Nasution argued that guerrilla warfare is the most suitable way of war for Indonesia because of the country’s poor military capability as well as lack of financial resources. The implementation of this guerrilla strategy consequently put much emphasize on the human element with no compulsory to acquire sophisticated military platforms, highly organized logistical systems or even military hardware with computer technology.
Besides the revolutionary war, the country experienced several insurgencies and separatism issues. The circumstance made counterinsurgency operations became the primary focus of the Indonesian armed forces and put the army as the spearhead of the military. The pressing issues of insurgency and separatism occurred until early 2000s in Aceh and sporadically appeared until now in Papua. In addition, the rise of Soeharto authoritarian regime in 1966 dragged the military to involve in day to day politics. The authoritarian regime prioritized stability in the country as it provides an opportunity in fostering economic developments. The regime employed the military in various domestic security roles to achieve the objective. As a result, the military became overwhelmed with domestic security roles and activities to safeguard the authoritarian regime’s interests. Although the fall of Soeharto has forced the military to reduce its domestic security role, the Indonesian armed forces seem still eager to play a greater part on the task, in example, the proxy war narrative.
The influence of guerrilla experience during the revolutionary war, tenacious domestic security role, and persistent political involvement made the military put little focus in acquiring the cutting-edge technology to boost its combat capability. This condition provided a heavy challenge for the Indonesian air force as the service is closely associated with technology and requires up to date scientific developments to advance. Besides the issue of minor role of technology, the Indonesian armed forces in general, and the air force in particular, is still having a gap between their ideal budget to fulfil MEF and the real budget.
Budget Gap. Ideally Indonesia’s defense budget should be around 9.7 billion USD per year in order to nicely cover the needs. However, the Indonesian government only allocated about 7.8 billion USD for 2017. This budget issue contributes significantly to the slow rejuvenation of the air force’s aircrafts in service. By 2013, about 37 per cent of TNI AU’s aircrafts have been used for more than 31 years old. Moreover, 28 per cent and 16 per cent of those aircrafts have been in service between 11-20 years and less than 10 years respectively.
The Indonesian air force responded this aging aircraft issue by procuring several new aircrafts, such as the refurbished F-16s, Sukhois, T-50s, Grobs, and Super Tucanos. However, this plan may lead to the perennial issue of a mixed bag of platforms. Besides those new aircrafts, the Indonesian air force still holds the ambition to accomplish the KFX/IFX project with the South Korean. Providing a proper maintenance programme and logistical support as well as ensuring interoperability between those platforms became another challenge for TNI AU. Failure to do so will surely create a logistic nightmare that may jeopardize the ability of the Indonesian air force.
Small Air Force of a Big Nation: Striking a Balance
Despite being the largest country in Southeast Asia and the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia only owns a relatively auxiliary air force that falls in the category of small air force. Sanu Kainikara noted that small air forces possess the capability to deliver all air power functions, roles and missions, and are, as such, balanced forces. In addition, the all-around capabilities of smaller air forces do not include the sustainability of such capabilities due to limited or no national indigenous technological, industrial, and infrastructural supports. Technology turns to be a crucial determinant to enhance an air force’s capability. Phillip S. Meilinger argued air power and technology are integrally and synergistically related with the previous as the product of the latter.
Although technology plays a paramount role in transforming military capability, technology alone would be insufficient to handle such task. As noted by Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox, hardware alone is not enough to ensure battlefield effectiveness, unless accompanied by the success to incorporate the technology into their system. On the other hand, Stephen Rosen believed large bureaucracies, including the military, often find difficulties to change as they prefer continuity rather than alteration. This situation also applied for the Indonesian air force as part of the Indonesian armed forces that traditionally do not emphasize heavily on the use of technology. Modernization that currently is ongoing may only reach fraudulent results without a necessary overhaul on the Indonesian military doctrine, namely shifting towards an outward looking thinking and minimizing domestic security role focus. Furthermore, the Indonesian air force needs to calibrate regularly its objectives due to budget constraints. Increasing the defense budget might be out of the table as the country’s economy currently experiencing slow development.
On another note, the introduction of Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) concept by the current Indonesian Pesident, Mr. Joko Widodo, offered another challenge for the Indonesian air force. The GMF concept supposedly becomes a guidance for the country’s shift to maritime focus. The paradigm covers not only defence and foreign policy, but also economy, culture, and social realms. The Indonesian air force needs to prepare itself to take a significant role under the GMF paradigm. Nonetheless, the Widodo administration until now has not yet shown a strong signal to seriously assert the country’s maritime ambition through the GMF. (Adhi Priamarizki is PhD student at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto).
[i] In comparison, Singapore had substantially upgraded its F-5s that delivered about the same year with Indonesia’s F-5s.
[ii] The number excludes F-5 aircrafts and Hawks, as no clear policy has been announced for them. In addition, the real number might be lower due to accidents during training or operation.