Monday, October 3, 2011

Indonesia Wary of US Jets

Indonesian lawmakers have declined a US offer of second-hand F-16s. Jakarta should accept the fighters.

If Indonesia is serious about modernising its outmoded military and producing a Minimum Essential Force by 2025, it can ill afford to turn down bargains, rare as they are in the bank breaking business of military procurement. So when Indonesia’s House of Representatives announced that it was thinking about declining an offer of 30 second-hand F-16s being offloaded as excess defence articles by the United States, it seemed that Jakarta was in danger of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Though the government also announced last month that it plans to spend $11 billion on new kit by 2014 – an impressive amount historically by Indonesian standards – the military’s long and urgent of list requirements will see that money quickly burned through.

Air force modernisation may prove the biggest drain on resources. In 2010, Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said he envisaged the procurement of 180 Russian Sukhois in order to create an effective Indonesian air force, but few analysts lent much credence to that particular plan, with only 10 new Sukhois acquired so far. However, Purnomo also said that he wanted to acquire more F-16 fighter jets – Indonesia had previously bought one squadron of 12 F-16s, most of them now inoperable, in the 1980s – and this objective seemed more realistic in light of the democratising country’s rapidly improving ties with Washington.

The House of Representatives didn’t balk at the idea of buying second-hand aircraft – once upgraded, the F-16s could see another two decades’ service – nor was the $430 million price tag the sticking point. At $14.3 million per aircraft, including both purchase and upgrade work, the offer represented good value for an air force that’s struggling to find cash for brand new planes.

It was the aircrafts’ origin that apparently stuck in some lawmakers’ craw. ‘We don’t want this plan to become a new start of our country’s dependency on the US government and their military products,’ said Enggartiasto Lukito, a Golkar representative. It’s clear that both the Defence Ministry and the Air Force were happy with the deal, and neither seems to have anticipated this kind of objection to US procurements.

Negotiations are now underway to see whether this objection can be overcome. If sense prevails, it will be overcome swiftly: the notion of the Indonesian armed forces becoming dependent on the United States is really quite far-fetched. Russia remains Indonesia’s biggest arms supplier, and defence ties with China are deepening. In terms of aircraft, Indonesia has recently procured planes from Russia, Brazil and South Korea, while the Koreans are also working with Indonesia to develop an advanced fighter jet that Jakarta expects to start procuring towards the end of decade. The Indonesians were also reported to be talking to the UK about obtaining Typhoons. Adding US F-16s into the mix is hardly going to leave the Indonesian air force at the mercy of Capitol Hill.

The potential value of the F-16 deal to the Indonesian Air Force is best understood in terms of the number of aircraft that the country is typically able to procure. It took Jakarta a decade to assemble its one squadron of 10 Sukhois; it has so far ordered eight Super Tucanos from Brazil; and it bought 16 T-50 Golden Eagle advanced jet trainers from Korea. C-130 transport aircraft are being sourced second-hand and in small numbers from various countries, including Australia and Norway. So, for an air force at this modest stage of development, 30 planes are a windfall.

Indonesia needs to focus on acquiring reliable, advanced equipment at prices that deliver value for money, and the F-16s seem to tick all of those boxes. The aircraft hardly threaten US dependency, especially given Indonesia’s far greater military dependency on Russia and, increasingly, South Korea.

The Golkar representatives blocking the deal may still be sore about the US arms embargo dating back to the days when Golkar was the party of power; or they may just be doing what oppositions do. However, even if closer ties with the United States aren’t considered a positive thing in the round – and that isn’t a view that most Indonesian politicians seem to share, with US re-engagement with Southeast Asia being generally welcomed – the House of Representatives should consider that filibustering and politicking won’t ever get them their Minimum Essential Force. They should take the planes and run. By Trefor Moss for The Diplomat

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