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.

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Academic freedom and defense policy

Recently, there was some controversy following the dismissal of a prominent human rights activist from his teaching responsibilities at the Indonesian Defense University (IDU). Both the activist and university officials confirmed that the source of the acrimony was the former’s several newspaper opinion pieces criticizing the government’s weapons procurement plans.

Indeed, according to IDU rector Lt. Gen. (ret.) Syarifuddin Tippe, as quoted by The Jakarta Post, the activist, by being a member of the university, “had become [a member of] our defense community who should have consulted his colleagues here first before writing in the newspaper”. He added that what the activist had written was not entirely correct, and that he had previously been warned for his actions.

Meanwhile, those who rallied behind the activist argued, both offline and online via Twitter and Facebook, that the suspension suggested that the IDU was becoming increasingly “authoritarian”, and that the university should not infringe upon “academic freedom”. Others went so far as to say that if the university started punishing or dismissing people for voicing their academic opinions, then we should question the quality of their graduates. Others still argue that the IDU is not “military property”.

As emotions continue to run high, and despite some factual inaccuracies in this exchange, I am not aiming to be a judge here; I am writing this only to highlight the larger issues at stake.

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