Jakarta’s toothless military unable to cope with threats

Six years ago, the Indonesian military conducted a daring land, air and sea exercise.

In a show of force, paratroopers from the 305 Airborne Battalion descended on the natural gas-rich Natuna islands as a pointed message to regional powers against adventurism in the area.

The joint manoeuvres by the army, navy, air force and police involved some 19,000 soldiers, 54 fighter aircraft and 27 warships.

In military terms, Indonesian planners said that they wanted to develop the capability of projecting amphibious assault battalions and support ships into potential trouble spots in both eastern and western Indonesia.

The drill was a proud moment for a military at the pinnacle of its power during former president Suharto’s heyday. What a difference six years make.

That dream of military force projection is just that – a dream – after revelations by the top brass about ageing equipment and obsolete weapons.

The reality faced by the generals suggests that Asean’s largest member state has zero-power projection now and will be hard-pressed to defend large sections of the sprawling archipelago in the event of a conventional attack.

The military is toothless even in the face of non-conventional threats from pirates, smugglers and potential terrorists who can easily penetrate Indonesia’s porous borders.


MR JUSUF Wanandi of the Jakarta-based think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted: ‘Indonesia is so badly exposed to all kinds of threats now because the military does not have the basic capability to overcome them.’The navy and air-force statistics are particularly glaring.

At a time when naval capabilities are being expanded across the region with six countries having already acquired submarines and advanced surface ships to carry out blue-water operations and sea-control strategies, the Indonesian navy is on a downward spiral.

Navy chief Bernard Kent Sondakh disclosed last week that the navy’s 113 ships were only fit to sail but not fight. Much of the problem lies in the age of the ships. A third of them are over 30 years old. Only eight of the vessels are less than 10. The country’s two German-built submarines have battery and engine problems, while the weapon systems on five of its frigates are obsolete.

The navy did try to address some of these problems a decade ago by purchasing 30 ships from East Germany. But the decision backfired when it was discovered that most of the 16 Porchim-class corvettes together with 14 Frosch-class LST troop carriers and nine minesweepers required a massive overhaul.

The situation is equally dire in the air force owing to lack of funding made worse by a prevailing US military embargo on Indonesia.

Air Force Marshal Chappy Hakim told a parliamentary hearing that only 93 of the 222 aircraft in the service’s inventory were operational. Eleven of its 18 C-130 Hercules transport planes were currently not fit to fly, while five of the country’s 16 radar stations were closed.

In its 2002 budget, the air force was allocated 473 billion rupiah (S$99.3 million). But Marshal Chappy said that it needed 4.2 trillion rupiah this year to be ‘operationally ready’.

In most countries, the sister services are not created equal. In Indonesia, this is taken to extremes. And at no time is this more apparent than today, with an army on the resurgence four years after Mr Suharto’s fall. The bulk of this year’s military budget of 9.3 trillion rupiah, for example, went to the army, leaving the air force and navy with crumbs.

A senior naval officer told The Straits Times: ‘If we were to go to war with any of our neighbours today, we will lose. We need to do some serious rethinking about our defence policy.’

Defence plans had been predicated for the last 30 years on handling internal threats. But analysts said these were now outdated in the light of ‘new threats’ to the archipelago that were ‘non-conventional’.

To be sure, Indonesia does not face an imminent attack from any of its Asian neighbours today. Some hawkish generals desperate for funds might be quick to highlight the rapid military modernisation of its principal adversary China.

True, Beijing has increased the capabilities of its submarine fleet and has developed new submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles over the last year.

But China’s force restructuring and development has more to do with the strengthening of the United States-Japan alliance, American weapon sales to Taiwan and concerns about US defence plans in the region.

For Jakarta, the geo-strategic environment appears much more benign, especially in light of the growing rapprochement with Beijing.

With several trade agreements in the offing – including barter deals for military equipment – China is now seen by Indonesia as less of a political threat and more as a major economic Asian power.

Going to war with China over the Natuna islands is too remote a possibility in the short to medium term. And it is equally inconceivable that force will be used to settle another glaring dispute, this time with Malaysia over the Sipadan and Ligitan islands.

What is sparking concern and debate in Jakarta is whether a weak navy and air force will leave the country’s border unprotected from the scourge of piracy, smuggling and terrorism that cumulatively pose a significant threat to national security.

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.

The IMB recorded 22 separate pirate attacks, many of which took place in the Malacca Strait – one of the busiest sea-lanes in the world with more than 600 ships travelling through it each day – 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’.

There are international implications in failing to crack down on piracy. Indonesia’s sea-lanes are one of the busiest in the world with commercial vessels from Japan, the US and other countries plying through.

Failure to ensure the security of maritime waters will only damage further Indonesia’s already tarnished reputation.

At a more general level, Indonesia comes up terribly short if the US war on terrorism is being used as litmus test for bilateral relations.

Gun running within and outside the country is feeding the paramilitary activities of Muslim militant groups like the Laskar Jihad.

And the navy, in particular, is hard-pressed to do anything to stop the flow of weapons from as far as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The effectiveness of the air force is also being called into question.

Senior air-force officers complain privately that there are numerous air-space violations, especially in eastern Indonesian where the military’s radar capability is almost non-existent.

A more significant problem is that several of the service’s fighter and transport planes continue to be grounded, impeding efforts to contain centrifugal tensions in the country.

Rapid troop deployments to the troubled zones of Aceh, Papua and the Maluku islands have been delayed several times.

In the face of these problems, there are two wild cards that could revive the military’s fortunes, especially that of the air force and navy.

The first is if the US Congress takes it upon itself to lift aid restrictions and weapons sales to Indonesia. But that looks unlikely to happen until next year because of congressional inertia.

But a second and related wild card could put relations on the fast track if a terrorist attack again took a toll on US interests abroad. Normalisation of military ties between Washington and Jakarta would be placed back on the front burner.

But until that happens, Indonesia will remain remarkably vulnerable and exposed.

Select the fields to be shown. Others will be hidden. Drag and drop to rearrange the order.
  • Image
  • SKU
  • Rating
  • Price
  • Stock
  • Availability
  • Add to cart
  • Description
  • Content
  • Weight
  • Dimensions
  • Additional information
  • Attributes
  • Custom attributes
  • Custom fields
Click outside to hide the comparison bar