Jakarta to watch gas fields with new radar

THE Indonesian military planned to station an enormous radar balloon above the Natuna gas fields in the South China Sea to detect possible incursions of foreign ships and aircraft into the territory, deputy air force chief Air Vice-Marshal Djatmiko said.

“The radar is in the form of an air balloon bigger than a Boeing 747 plane,” the Antara news agency quoted him as saying yesterday.

He told reporters that discussions were under way to buy the radar balloon from the United States.

The disclosure of the planned purchase of the radar came a few days after the military announced it was deploying six Nomad-22 reconnaissance aircraft – bought recently from Australia – to safeguard the Natuna gas project.

The airplanes would help the navy’s boats patrol the Natuna area, acting as its “eyes and ears”.

The Air Vice-Marshal said that the radar balloon could be operated easily because it was mobile and could be moved from one location to another, unlike conventional radars which were fixed at a particular location.

A senior armed forces (Abri) officer told The Straits Times that the move was linked to increased “vigilance” by the Indonesian military over the Natuna islands.

Over the last few years, foreign planes and ships have reportedly entered Indonesian territory frequently, particularly around the Natuna islands where the country has a huge gas project. The area is close to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

The Natuna field reportedly contains vast quantities of natural gas. The seabed around the islands is believed to have gas reserves of about 6.3 trillion cu m. The project is being developed by the Pertamina state oil and gas company, Exxon Corp, Mobil Oil and several Japanese companies. It is slated to release its first gas shipment by 2003.

While Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands, off north-east Kalimantan, is not disputed, there is a “a grey area” of 200 nautical miles surrounding China’s claims over the islands, which overlaps with some of the waters off the Natunas.

The Indonesian military conducts regular patrols of the area. Last year it carried out its largest ever combined armed forces exercise around the Natuna islands – a move analysts see as sending a signal to China of Indonesia’s intent and capability to defend the islands.

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