Tuesday, September 27, 2016


In Robert Kaplan’s book, Asia’s Cauldron, I came across this particularly interesting quote: “Submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them.” At the same time, I was also doing research on Indonesia’s naval modernization program, which included submarine acquisition.

Can it be that Indonesia’s submarine program is based on flimsy prestige politics rather than accurate strategic assessment?

When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stepped into office in 2014, he had dreams of reinvigorating Indonesia’s maritime legacy. He then constructed a grand maritime vision, the Global Maritime Fulcrum. Jokowi envisioned Indonesia as a regional maritime power and economy in Southeast Asia.  The most important driving factor of Jokowi’s dream would be the Navy. Against the backdrop of increasing regional tensions particularly in the South China Sea and an increasingly competitive arms dynamic in Southeast Asia, a major part of Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum rests on whether or not the Navy would be capable of becoming a middle-power navy that can safeguard Indonesia’s maritime interests.

Two years have passed since then. The Navy is in the process of modernization. Working under the framework of the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) left behind by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and embedded in the Strategic Defense Plan (Renstra). According to MEF standards, the Navy aims to have around 154 naval vessels by 2024. Ten to 12 of them include submarines. Indonesia is expecting three Chang Bogo submarines from Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and is further planning to procure three more Kilo-class submarines from Russia.

While the Navy indeed has a long history of operational experience with submarines, given the limitations of Indonesian waters and other pressing issues in maritime security, it might be time to take a step back and start rethinking our submarine dreams.

Times have changed since the 1950s, when Indonesia was arguably one of the most powerful submarine operators in Southeast Asia. However, we need to consider the changes in the character of conflicts and threats that Indonesia faces. In this day and age, does the Navy really need 10-12 submarines?

Given the rising tensions in the South China Sea, the appeal of submarines is apparent. Submarines are classic weapons for sea denial and can act as a force multiplier for surface combatants. Submarines also serve as a potent deterrent due to their stealth and power. In conditions of war, submarines can be used to transport troops covertly and conduct espionage. This is perfectly in line with the Navy’s ambition of becoming a green-water navy capable of guarding Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty.

However, beyond these capabilities, submarines serve little purpose. We need to consider the limitations of the submarine itself and then position them within the larger picture, such as geography, the character of security threats and the economy.

First, there are the absolute limitations of geography. Indonesian waters are narrow and shallow, especially in sea lanes of communication between islands and straits which function as sea trade routes and naval chokepoints. Shallow waters would force the submarine to emerge, hence negating its stealth. Additionally, those particular bodies of water are often congested with maritime trade vessels. Insisting on operating in congested waters poses the risk of collisions, which would have diplomatic and economic ramifications that can have a ripple effect. It is also worth noting that as other Southeast Asian countries are also acquiring submarines and have relatively little operational experience, the possibilities of accidents increases.

Second, there is a question of utility. As elaborated above, submarines are great when it comes to sinking huge warships in naval battles. However, the maritime security threats that Indonesia faces today are not from imperial navies. They come from illegal fishing and piracy. Submarines are useless when it comes to low-intensity operations. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s explosive measures against illegal fishing boats reflects the gravity of the problem. Indonesian waters are plentiful with fish, yet due to illegal fishing, Indonesia stands to lose US$20-25 billion per year. Seeing such grave losses, it would make more strategic sense to invest in enhancing surface capabilities, such as fast patrol boats, rather than in submarines.

Indonesian waters still remain a hotbed of piracy. In 2015, the IMB reported 108 actual and attempted attacks in Indonesian waters, which is the highest in Southeast Asia. The Navy’s forces are spread thin and we cannot blame them, for they have to cover a wide expanse of water. Pirates operate similarly to illegal fishermen; in small, fast boats capable of maneuvering through the many islets scattered across the archipelago. Here, we also see a limit to the usefulness of a submarine. From 2004 to today, the trilateral joint patrols in the Malacca Strait have managed to reduce piracy to a bare minimum. The success was mostly due to a sustained naval presence, which deterred pirates. Submarines cannot achieve similar results, considering they are more comfortable remaining below the waves.

Third, there are financial limitations. The Indonesian government is currently facing a number of budget cuts that affect all aspects of spending, including defense. In 2016, defense spending might be reduced by Rp 2.8 trillion ($214.2 million), which would certainly affect future acquisition plans.

It is important to remember that the purchase of a submarine does not stop when it arrives at your doorstep. A submarine requires constant maintenance, which is technically complex. Without proper infrastructure and the right technical expertise, it would only be a matter of time until a new submarine quickly became an expensive hunk of metal. A major portion of the acquisition budget would need to go into investing in proper supporting infrastructure, particularly into shipbuilding facilities. Though the new Chang Bogo submarines have been completed, Indonesia has had to delay them until December due to infrastructural problems. Additionally, it takes a high degree of skill to maintain and operate a submarine, meaning that the government would need to invest in specialized training.

Considering these conditions, perhaps we need to rethink the urgency of our submarine dreams. Though submarines may be useful in facing off against a stronger navy, the threat of an all-out naval battle in Southeast Asia remains small. The funds invested in submarines might be better off used in enhancing our surface capabilities, since there are far more pressing security threats in our seas and to the livelihood of Indonesians.


The writer IGB. Dharma Agastia is a postgraduate student at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, majoring in strategic studies. His research interests are maritime security, civil-military relations and future warfare.


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