Indonesian navy ships not fit to fight, says chief

Most of the ships are not fully operational because of problems, dealing a blow to its plan to combat piracy and smuggling.

Indonesian navy chief Bernard Kent Sondakh has said that the navy’s 113 ships are fit to sail but not fight – a startling revelation that throws into doubt its ability to crack down on the rising piracy, smuggling and illegal-immigrant problems in the sprawling archipelago.

He told a parliamentary hearing that most of the ships – from the Netherlands, the former East Germany, Yugoslavia, and from the state-owned PT PAL shipyard – were not fully operational because of ageing engines and obsolete weapons.

Analysts, blaming budget constraints for the problem, said that this made the navy’s task of patrolling the country’s 17,000 islands ‘a nightmare’.

Commenting on the dilemma facing the navy, military observer Salim Said of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘How do you expect them to handle these issues effectively when the ships are not operational? They are ill equipped. It is a navy without any teeth.’

The disclosure by Admiral Sondakh on Monday raises concerns among neighbouring countries given Indonesia’s recent pledges to address problems like smuggling and especially piracy jointly.

A trilateral pact between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines signed in May obliges them to monitor terrorism, smuggling, piracy, hijacking, intrusion, illegal entry, drug trafficking, theft of marine resources, marine pollution and illicit trafficking in arms.

The Straits of Malacca, which separates the Malaysian peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago, has always been a favourite haunt of modern-day buccaneers, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the world’s pirate activity.

The Kuala-Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recently described Indonesian waters as the most pirate-infested in the world. It recorded 22 separate pirate attacks during the first three months of this year.

Indonesian navy officers said that anti-piracy efforts had actually been stepped up this year but the navy ‘cannot do more than required because our ships are not up to mark’.

A senior naval officer said: ‘Only 30 per cent of our ships are operational. We will never be able to fight a conventional naval battle with another country. And it has reached a stage where it is impeding our efforts to root out problems like piracy.’

Much of the problem lies in the age of the ships. A third of the force’s 113 ships are over 30 years old. Only eight of the vessels are less than 10 years old.

The navy tried to address some of the problems a decade ago by purchasing 30 ships from East Germany. But the decision backfired when it was found most of the vessels required a massive overhaul.

During an interview with The Straits Times recently, Admiral Sondakh said that the aim was to upgrade these ships – 16 Porchim-class corvettes together with 14 Frosch-class LST troop carriers and nine mine sweepers.

Dr Salim said that in his meeting with US policy makers in Washington recently, he had impressed on them the need to lift the military embargo to provide funds for the navy and air force – both of which were in desperate need of spares and equipment.

‘The military paradigm is changing in which the navy and air force are going to play a bigger role in Indonesian national security,’ he said.

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