Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Indonesia and The Folly of Foreign-Made Jets

The Indonesian Armed Forces recently announced it had accepted a grant of 24 F-16 jet fighters from the United States, and that during the course of 2014 it plans to buy even more. According to the military, this is part of an overall program to upgrade the Air Force.

However, these plans beg the question as to whether the top brass understands what is required to really develop the country, for how much deterrence these US jets will achieve is questionable. And focusing on the purchase of foreign weapons systems means missing out on a great opportunity for economic development.

Regarding the military deterrent that is the goal of these plans, it must be remembered that the F-16 is a so-called fourth-generation fighter jet. Most countries in the region, such as China, India, Australia, Japan and Singapore, are currently working on an upgrade of their air forces to fifth-generation fighters, like the Chinese-made J-20, the American F-35 and the Russian T-50/PAK-FA. South Korea and Malaysia are also rumored to be considering such a move. Even the most modern version of the F-16 will be little more than a sitting duck in any dogfight with these advanced military aircraft.

There is also the question of how modern exactly the F-16s in question will be. It is a well-known fact that the United States does not sell the cutting-edge technologies that are behind its own military superiority. The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 prohibits it from doing so. That is why the United States has not put its top-of-the-line fighter jet, the F-22, up for sale to anyone. And that is why the sale of the American F-35 to Britain was stalled for a long time, as — much to the dislike of the British — the United States insisted on keeping some of the jet’s technological components a secret.

The Argentinian experience during its war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982 provides the conclusive argument against relying on arms purchases for the establishment of a military deterrent. During that war, the Argentinians used French-made Exocet missiles against the British Navy — with great success. The British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, therefore placed a call to French President Francois Mitterrand, who said she threatened “to launch the atomic weapon against Argentina unless I supply her with the secret codes that render deaf and blind the missiles we have sold to the Argentinians.”

This clearly shows that it is common practice for weapons manufacturers to build into their weapons systems special coding that allows the manufacturer to shut down the weapons at any desired moment. For the seller, this ensures the weapons can never be used against him. But for the buyer, this means the weapons can never be really relied upon during times of need.

The fact of the matter is that a real military deterrent cannot be bought. It can only be developed locally.

The benefits of doing so are not only strategic, however. By producing the needs of the military locally, there are also important economic benefits. The economists that researched what is called Military Keynesianism have identified the following:

First, purchasing weapons abroad causes money to leave the country, generating incomes for foreign firms and their workers, while producing and purchasing weapons locally generates income for local firms and their workers.

Second, a government policy that aims at producing a military deterrent at home will force the government to focus on establishing the basic requirements for any successful economy: excellent infrastructure and a high-knowledge population. This is because the demands of a military deterrent in today’s world require a defense industry that is high-tech in every sense. A government policy that aims to produce a home-grown military deterrent will therefore drive government expenditure on roads, schools and communications technology, thereby laying a foundation from which other industries can develop and prosper.

And third, in order to maintain a military deterrent, a defense industry must realize continuous improvements in technology. A focus on research and development is therefore only natural for the defense industry. And many examples can be given of technological innovations that were developed in the defense industry but spilled over into civil industries: jet engines, computers, nuclear power and the Internet are just a few examples.

A government policy that aims to produce a military deterrent at home could therefore not only be the starting point of a new Indonesia — an Indonesia set for real development and growth — but also the force driving the development of the nation’s industrial base, supplying products to the world and allowing full employment with the highest possible wages.

Therefore, this is what Indonesia is missing out on through its focus on purchasing foreign weapons: real military deterrence and a big chance for real economic development.

Some may say that in its present state, a policy that aims to produce a military deterrent domestically is simply not an option for Indonesia. But this thinking is not only incorrect, it is also what will keep the country from ever developing.

To think there are ways to pull a country of 237 million people out of poverty that do not require long-term planning, dedication and hard work is self-deceit. Any attempt to find such shortcuts for development will only leave one far removed from achieving what it truly needs.

Idries de Vries Jakarta-based economic and geopolitical affairs analyst. Jakarta Globe

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