Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Indonesia’s Air Force fit for the 21st century

Flying high: Lieutenant Ratna, a female officer in the Indonesian Air Force, poses before landing at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in East Jakarta during a celebration of the Air Force's 66th anniversary. (JP/Jerry Adiguna)  

As the sound of engines from both the Su-27/30 and F-16 jet fighters roared over my house earlier this month, I couldn’t contain my excitement over those maneuvering metal birds preparing for the Air Force’s anniversary on April 9.The “wings of the motherland” — swa bhuwana paksa as the Air Force motto goes — made me feel proud of having those pilots protect our great nation. However, I also feel a sense of concern and confusion over the Air Force.

It is no secret that the Air Force (and the Air Wing of other branches of the Indonesian Military or TNI) has had unfortunate incidents and accidents. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the Air Force lost six fixed-wing aircrafts, mostly brand-new, straight-off-the-factory-floor, equipment. In addition, the controversy surrounding the acquisition of the Agusta Westland (AW) 101 caused much confusion, as the President made clear that the purchase of the helicopter had to be cancelled.

But the biggest issue is the loss of manpower. It takes a considerable amount of time to replace any loss of personnel, with recruitment, training and force allocation. The Air Force must keep a balanced amount of personnel, including pilots, ground support, and officers in any given situation to satisfy the minimum essential forces program.

With limited equipment, and a limited budget, one key lesson for the Air Force at its 71st anniversary, is efficiency.

Taken from various sources, the cost per hour of flying a Su-27/30 is just under US$12,000, whilst the Su-35 that is being considered as a replacement for the F-5E/F Tiger II, costs around $14,000. Compare that with the F-16, which costs around $7,000, or the Gripen fighter jet at around $5,000.

Therefore I advocate a more efficient equipment for the Air Force to face the problems in the 21st century: Drones.

At the turn of the century, the use of drones (formally Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, UAV) has proliferated to all sectors of the military, and can support and conduct almost every manner of operation.

The two fundamental roles of drones are “strike,” and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The US is at the helm of drone use and research and has employed a wide variety of drones in several theaters of conflict. Consider the MQ-9 Reaper drone of the US Air Force; one unit costs around $14 million, but operation costs are only around $1,500 to $5,000/hour.

Compare that with the US Navy’s P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft. It was priced at more than twice the amount of the Reaper, and costs about $8,000/hour to operate.

Not only are drones more affordable to operate, they also mitigate the risks of manpower losses due to accidents or incidents. A drone can be operated by a ground-control pilot, or through an autonomous set of predetermined waypoints input within the system.

Thus, any physical losses of the equipment would spare the pilot’s life, as the pilot would operate or supervise the drone from the ground. Moreover, a single drone would be operated, at maximum, by a crew of about four, as opposed to a traditional patrol aircraft that requires at least six personnel.

With such low costs, and high rate of utilization, the use of drones is imperative for the military of a developing economy such as Indonesia. The Indonesian military would also benefit immensely from the technology acquired, and may one day be able to actively produce the same equipment, for a fraction of the cost.

I applaud the decision of the Defense Ministry to acquire the Skeldar V-200 drone to augment our surveillance capability. However the Navy, instead of the Air Force, may operate the Skeldar.

Thus there is room for the Air Force to improve its capability and make itself more efficient. The Air Force must start to recognize the need for drones to support its operations and mitigate any risks to equipment and personnel loss. Only then could it be acknowledged as an Air Force fit for the 21st century. Dirgahayu (long live) TNI-AU!

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