The Hidden Challenges of Indonesia’s Defence Modernisation

The acquisition by Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) of ForceSHIELD – an integrated, advanced air-defence system – earlier this year is the latest in a long succession of similar purchases, reflecting the country’s decade-long drive to obtain state-of-the-art weapons systems. For a country on the brink of collapse in the late 1990s, following the Asian financial crisis and the end of authoritarian rule, its recent shopping list is impressive.

It includes over 100 Leopard main battle tanks from Germany, three Chang Bogo-class attack submarines from South Korea (and possibly ten more from Russia), several SIGMAclass corvettes from the Netherlands, a squadron of Sukhoi multi-role combat aircraft from Russia, and possibly twenty four F-16C/D fighters from the US. This is in addition to new trainer and ground-attack aircraft, including sixteen T-50 Golden Eagles from South Korea and eight EMB-314 Super Tucanos from Brazil, as well as eight AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and dozens of new infantry fighting vehicles.

The UK is one of the largest European arms suppliers to Indonesia. According to a report by the NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade, official government records indicate that between 1995 and 2005, more than half of Indonesia’s weapons came from the UK. From 1997 to 2004, the UK’s total arms exports to Indonesia – including armoured personnel carriers, Hawk fighter jets and Scorpion light tanks – were valued at around £393 million.

Following a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Jakarta in April 2012, the two countries agreed to further strengthen defence co-operation in various fields, from military training to weapons procurement. In January 2013, Indonesia’s MoD signed contracts with UK manufacturers to procure the Starstreak man-portable air-defence system, as well as spare parts for aircraft and light tanks already in its inventory. This is in addition to the agreement to acquire three BAE-manufactured advanced offshore patrol vessels originally meant for Brunei.

The scale and scope of Indonesia’s arms deals, with both the UK and other military powers worldwide, suggests that the country is pursuing an ambitious drive to become a major power in the Indo-Pacific region. A stable democratic political system, a sound economic foundation and a growing global role have already allowed Jakarta to burnish its ‘soft-power’ credentials. What is missing, some argue, is a fully modernised military that would allow it to join the ranks of the region’s premier powers, such as Australia, China and India.

However, such inferences gloss over the complexity and challenges inherent to Indonesia’s post-authoritarian defence modernisation.

For one thing, while the country’s defence budget more than tripled from approximately US$2.1 billion in 2003 to about $7.7 billion in 2012, it has never constituted more than 1 per cent of GDP – a comparatively small proportion for a nation of over 250 million spread over 17,000 islands, with an armed force of around 400,000.

For another, around two-thirds of the defence budget is dedicated to personnel-related costs rather than to defence acquisition or research and development (R&D). According to IHS Jane’s projections, spending on personnel between 2010 and 2017 will, on average, be around $4.79 billion annually, with procurement and R&D spending totalling an average of $1.45 billion and $150 million, respectively.

And despite recent efforts to use the country’s defence budget to resurrect its decaying defence industrial base – with the passing of the Defence Industry Law in 2012, for example – Indonesia still lacks the basic infrastructure, technological know-how and human capital to pursue full independence in this regard.

To an extent, the defence planners’ hands have been tied. The US arms embargo of the 1990s, imposed largely due to the Indonesian military’s (the Tentara Nasional Indonesia – TNI) alleged human-rights abuses, has generated caution regarding the political conditionality agreements attached to arms deals. Instead, defence planners have been looking to suppliers that are less likely to challenge how Indonesia uses its weaponry; the arms drive has gradually become more supplier-driven, leaning towards those based in countries like Russia and China.

However, this situation has been complicated by ambitious defence technological offset, countertrade and joint venture policies relating to foreign arms deals. For instance, the 2012 Defence Industry Law stipulates the inclusion of Indonesian companies in all procurement projects with other countries; requires the transfer of technology to the Indonesian parties involved; and mandates that the local ‘contribution’ to the final product should be no less than 35 per cent.

This situation is clouded by a lack of transparency in procurement procedures amidst persistent allegations of corruption – Transparency International’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index lists Indonesia as a ‘very high risk’ country. On top of this, the absence of a coherent, long-term defence plan and of an institutionalised tri-service culture means that the procurement process is reduced to a shopping list for the individual services, collected by the MoD.

The result is that, as of 2006, the TNI has been operating 173 different medium and advanced platforms imported from seventeen different countries. This entails significant costs in terms of maintenance and personnel training, and has often affected operational readiness due to problems relating to interoperability.

Even the MoD’s 2005 Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint, intended to define the capabilities and force structure required for a limited deployment of the TNI, makes no systematic effort to ameliorate this problem. It merely lists the required platforms and the numbers of these allocated to each service, without consideration of the associated integration, maintenance and training costs, or the need for long-term platform alignment and standardisation plans.

Meanwhile, a review of internal MoD documents suggests that overall spending on arms procurement is to be divided almost evenly between the army, navy and air force until 2024, despite the different operational readiness and capability requirements of the services, Indonesia’s predominantly maritime geostrategic position, and the imbalance between force sizes (the army is approximately five and ten times the size of the navy and air force respectively).

This points to a much more fundamental challenge for Indonesia in the modernisation of its defence capabilities: weak capacity in terms of personnel planning, management, and military education and training, and a cumbersome, army-centric organisational structure.

The launch of the Indonesian Defense University in 2009, offering Master’s-level education to both civilians and military personnel, is a step in the right direction – as is the recent prioritisation of education and training by TNI leaders. Even the military academy has recently been transformed into an educational institution with the capacity to teach and the authority to grant Bachelor’s degrees.

However, a review of the TNI’s educational curricula – covering the academy and the staff and command colleges, as well as the National Resilience Institute, which accepts both high-ranking military and civilian students – suggests that sociopolitical courses continue to make up a large proportion of available classes, although to a lesser extent than under the authoritarian rule of President Suharto (1966–98).

Additionally, even as overseas education and training opportunities have expanded, messy personnel policies have created promotional logjams, with the number of posts shrinking but the size of the officer corps increasing (from 46,168 in 2004 to 52,940 in 2009). Consequently, tours of duty have become ever-shorter – the current TNI commander was previously the army chief of staff for less than three months, for instance – and higher educational qualifications are becoming less relevant to promotion prospects.

Even more importantly, the TNI’s current Order of Battle still reflects the New Order-era organisational structure. Too many personnel (almost 40 per cent) are allocated to ‘territorial’ postings – involving a range of socioeconomic and political engagements with local communities – and internal security rather than combat commands and posts. If the TNI is serious about joining the ranks of advanced militaries, this structure needs to be revamped. After all, a leaner organisation oriented less towards internal security and more towards the changing external strategic environment, and staffed with better-educated and qualified officers, can capitalise on advanced technology to compensate for reductions in personnel numbers.

Compounding these practical and structural problems are ongoing difficulties affecting civil–military relations. Although the military is officially no longer involved in politics, as under Suharto, and the practice of placing officers in civilian political posts has ceased, establishing full democratic civilian control remains a work in progress. The ambiguous chain-of-command structure within the military and civilian spheres – with the minister of defence officially in charge of defence planning and administration while the TNI commander enjoys ministerial-level status in his control over force development and deployment – has the potential to cause serious problems. The fact that command of the presidential guard remains firmly within the military structure is also often overlooked.

Meanwhile, even as parliament’s oversight function increases, its control over the defence budget and appointments of the service chiefs and the TNI commander has, to some extent, fuelled the continuing politicisation of defence affairs. That the parliament’s defence and foreign-affairs commission continues to lack institutional capacity and training in defence planning exacerbates this problem.

Furthermore, even if most TNI officers today eschew direct involvement in politics, retired generals and officers whose careers were forged during the New Order period have jumped on the democratic bandwagon and are now party officials or are seeking election to local office. As such, military politics has become a ‘latent variable’ in Indonesia’s civil–military relations – and is one reason for the TNI’s insistence on strict political neutrality rules within its ranks and its continuing disavowal of the voting rights of its personnel.

Finally, the partnership forged between civil-society groups, defence analysts, and the TNI and MoD in the immediate post-Suharto years to strengthen the process of military reform seems to be crumbling. While civil society groups remain entrenched in their advocacy of human rights and maintain their opposition to most national defence policies, including weapons-procurement deals and the possible creation of a reservist force, the TNI and MoD have exhibited a growing tendency to ignore civil-society protests – suggesting that the partnership has fragmented.

While the apparent speed of Indonesia’s defence modernisation in terms of equipment and platforms is striking, therefore, it is clear that the process masks numerous, serious challenges with regard to both the armed forces’ broader post-authoritarian transformation and civil–military relations. Unless these challenges are fully addressed, expecting Indonesia to emerge as a genuine regional military power will be like waiting for Godot

This post was originally published in the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No. 3, May 2014) (download)






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