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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Rethinking Indonesia’s ‘military reform’: Initial Thoughts

In the last few months, we’ve seen an old debate re-emerging: has the Indonesian military successfully reformed itself or not? The debate that sprung from this simple question is unfortunately of the “glass-half-full-half-empty” variety, particularly in the absence of a systematic framework–policy or theoretical–to measure ‘reform’.

While I’m currently working on a longer research project on ‘Transforming Post-Authoritarian Militaries: Indonesia in Comparative Perspective’, I want to share some nuggets and snippets of the initial theoretical and policy arguments.

Firstly, some of the initial conceptual and empirical foundations can be found in an older paper I wrote for Indonesian Review (in Indonesian). They represent my first cut of how I think about ‘military reform’ vs ‘defense transformation’, and what I think are the necessary policy elements we need to consider beyond the ‘democratic imperative’ of getting the military out of politics and establish civilian supremacy in the post-Suharto period.

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