Gearing up for `three-block war’

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 9 October 2009 |

On Oct. 5, the Indonesian Military (TNI) celebrated its 64th anniversary amid tough times. Domestically, Indonesia’s recurring natural disasters in the past five years have kept the TNI fully-occupied. A string of deadly military accidents and recurrent drops in defense budgets have also made things more difficult.

Internationally, the rise of low-intensity conflicts across the globe and rising pressure on overburdened US forces has seen a growing demand for TNI participation in international peacekeeping forces. More importantly, regional tensions still simmer beneath the surface, at a time when the military balance of power is not in our favor.

Not only we remain geo-strategically vulnerable due to our poor operational readiness, but our neighbors are several steps ahead in the development of their forces.

The Military Balance published annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes how China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia are all investing heavily to boost their projection of naval and air power – a necessary consequence of the character of Asia’s geo-strategic maritime theater.

Our response to these challenges however, is apparently to be out of tune. Our Strategic Defense Plan for 2004-2014 seems to envision a larger territorial command structure with an increased number of troops (mostly Special Forces and assault units) for all three services to eventually reach a total strength of around 450,000 personnel – all supported by a reserve component and hundreds of aircraft and naval vessels.

But the real extent of focus on boosting the Army’s Combat Engineers and Health Battalions, the hitting edge of any disaster relief capacity, or for TNI peacekeeping roles and requirements, is less than clear.

Recent military-related laws, while using new concepts like “Non-military Defense” or “Military Operations Other Than War”, are still basically reflecting and are underpinned by the same mindset of Total People’s Defense and Security (Sishankamrata) and its derivatives – such as Layered Defense Strategy and Regional Resilience – that were formulated decades ago.

Despite a new defense lexicon and a radically changing strategic milieu, our strategic plan of relying on territorial defense while trying to achieve strategic parity through high-tech hardware purchases – no matter how few in numbers – has remained fundamentally unchanged for the past three decades.

Given the TNI’s apparent full-spectrum of challenges, we should then perhaps add the notion of preparing for a “three-block war” in our defense planning. This is the idea that soldiers may be required to conduct a full scale military action, a peacekeeping operation, and humanitarian relief, all within the space of “three contiguous city blocks” – a concept first outlined by former US Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak in the late 1990s.

To tackle such a three-pronged challenge, several steps need to be considered.

First, our defense management needs be re-oriented from a platform-centric focus on purchasing military equipments to a people-centric focus on transforming our manpower policies to raise the quality and morale of our officers.

It is certainly appalling that by 2007 our hardware operational readiness was only rated around 40 percent across three services. Understandably also, hardware is easier to measure rather than intangibles such as leadership or morale.

However, although technical upgrading and maintenance are critical to prevent more deadly accidents, we must never forget that the military is ultimately about people as much as about the military equipment they use.

Given our low budget and history of military-related violence, a “Revolution in Manpower Affairs” geared to raise officer quality and optimize scarce defense resources seem more apt than a hardware-centric “Revolution in Military Affairs”.

This could include: overhauling the military education and training system, encouraging internal transparency on salary and promotion issues, reforming recruitment methods to attract the best candidates while slimming down the bureaucracy to cut personnel costs, and finally, placing greater significance on middle and lower-level officers to induce greater initiative and ensure a more rapid response during emergencies.

The end result of a high-quality officer corps – though perhaps not achieved instantly – is certainly in Indonesia’s best interest.

Second, instead of boosting our territorial commands with more Special Forces, intelligence, or combat assault units, emergency response units such the Army’s Corp of Engineers or Health Battalions should be boosted and attached to most local commands.

This would allow a more rapid response during natural disasters rather than waiting for Jakarta to send in more troops from other areas.

Furthermore, local government could also support such reorientation by providing medical equipment or health stations – something that they cannot easily do if the focus is on enlarging combat troop units requiring specific, expensive gear. This would eventually reduce the overall defense burden as well.

Finally, the TNI international peacekeeping role needs to be further boosted.

Not just in terms of troop numbers, but also in creating a favorable internal environment whereby peacekeeping assignments could further an officer’s career to the highest levels. This could hopefully alter our domestically-oriented strategic culture that often sees officers with an internal security background filling the top command posts.

Additionally, not only would the international exposure of peacekeeping operations further facilitate inter-operability with allied and friendly forces, but thus far, such operations have also raised Indonesia’s international standing.

If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is therefore serious about Indonesia’s “regional leadership and global role”, then raising the peacekeeping profile of the TNI needs to be a top priority in his next administration.

The writer is a researcher with the Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

The article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

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