Defense reforms for 2010-14: Men over materiel?

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 3 January 2010 |

“To defend everything is to defend nothing.” There is a lot of wisdom in this old military axiom. Indeed, it is hard to deny that when it comes to national defense, and even war, we just simply can’t do it all. We need to prioritize.

Yet, when we briefly glance through the recent policies made by the Defense Ministry for its 100-day program, the policy makers there seem to be doing the exact opposite – from stepping up military modernization, strengthening local defense industries, to improving border security and disaster management.

The more worrying aspect, however, is not so much the all-embracing priorities, but the perception that the next step after getting the military out of politics and business is to upgrade their weaponry.

As if getting a budget spike, committing to using local-made defense hardware, and purchasing state-of-the-art fighter jets or submarines, will lead us down the path to “military transformation”.

Certainly ensuring the safety of our men by upgrading our military hardware should be a top priority. But to hold such views narrowly could risk losing sight of the fact the key to sustainable military readiness and effectiveness is in the nation’s men and women in uniform – not the tools they use.

Without dedicated, motivated, able, and well-trained troops, the ministry’s investments in revitalizing defense industries or acquiring state-of-the-art weaponry will be wasted.

As such, our defense planners must realize that overhauling the Indonesian Military’s (TNI) manpower or personnel policies should be a priority over the next four years. Not just to bring in and retain the capable and dedicated officers we need, but also to lay the foundation for a truly transformed military.

Aside from overhauling the entire military education system, military scholar Cindy Williams argued in Service to Country that a comprehensive personnel policy transformation should include an incentive structure meant to attract people to join the force, encourage those with the right skills to stay in, motivate them to work hard and do their jobs well, and influence those whose skills are no longer needed to leave.

One of the first issues we need to address in this regard is the size of the officer corps. Studies have shown the unstable, and often bloated, number of military academy graduates has contributed to a decreasing military readiness, unstable tours of duties, and a fractured, or even politicized, promotion system and career paths.

These factors have played a role in upsetting the overall morale and cohesion of the officer corps from time to time. This is true especially when strategic billets have shrunk over the past decade after the abolishment of civilian and socio-political posts following Soeharto’s fall. As such, we need to debate and look at ways to gradually downsize the officer corps or revamp the force structure to allow a more sustainable, stable corps.

But to avoid crippling our military in the process, we also need to expand our recruitment drives through professional recruiting methods to enlarge and upgrade the pool of prospective officers.

Unfortunately, before we can do that, we need to improve the working conditions of the people who serve by eliminating bureaucratic red tape – or similar counterproductive “traditions” – and improve overall infrastructure and equipment.

This should be done in conjunction with the overhaul of the internal career path system – either by ensuring that commissioned officers are professionally, not politically, evaluated, or by adding the number of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), or both.

For such merit-based systems to be effective, improving military pay schemes and raising basic income must also be part of the program. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the TNI to win the competition in wooing our nation’s best and brightest.

Military pay schemes should also incorporate greater flexibility across postings and duties – especially in those hard-to-fill-in, or dangerous ones. Indeed, the flexibility to pay military specialists more for jobs that are highly rewarded in the private sector, like IT or logistical planning, may be crucial to realizing high-tech-driven transformation.

Last but not least, we need to improve the overall post-service career prospects and quality of life – not just for the officers, but for their families as well.

This includes improving pension schemes, which profoundly affect officers’ decision about their duration of service – and by implication, the size and shape of the force – as well as providing training for skills valued in the civilian job market and ensuring proper housing and other benefits.

After all, the prospect of a better economic future in the civilian world after a commissioned service can be a strong incentive for people to serve.

Yet, the almost-certain clashes between families of retirees and the TNI over housing – the last one being in Jakarta last week – suggests how military families and other quality-of-life benefits are often neglected by defense planners.

Now that we are no longer faced with a pressing internal insurgency, and with a military reform agenda nearly complete, it is time for us to use this “peace dividend” to do the big, long-term thinking and ensure the ministry-TNI can be competitive employers and effective human resource managers.

Military history has shown us that it is people who win wars, not technology.

The writer is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

The article was originally published by The Jakarta Post.


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