Budget wars: Indonesia’s biggest military challenge
On February 22, the Indonesian Institute of Inquiry released the poll results who ranked Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto as the top performer among President Joko Widodo’s ministers, with 75% of those polled saying they were satisfied with his performance. The result should be taken with care as it might only reflect a reaction to name recognition rather than actual performance. Nonetheless, Prabowo seems to realize the issues plaguing the Indonesian military, including the problem of decaying material, and has decided to act.
There has been no more powerful demonstration of this to the national and international public than the disappearance and sinking of the KRI submarine Nanggala 402 during a live torpedo exercise in the Bali Sea in April. All 53 crew members were lost.
A month after the loss of the submarine, it was disclosed to journalists that Prabowo had drafted a presidential regulation revealing that the Defense Ministry planned to seek $ 125 billion in loans modernize Indonesia’s aging military hardware. The size of the proposed spending amid the Covid-19 pandemic has raised eyebrows and sparked controversy, at a time when some local leaders claimed lacked money needed to help people during public health shutdowns.
Prabowo defended the budget offer saying he was just doing his job; that he had received an instruction of the president to draft a 25-year “grand design” for the defense, although he admitted that the the president had not yet approved the number. The project’s leak is likely due to the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic battle over spending allocations in the increasingly difficult economic times caused by the pandemic.
Bureaucratic battles over the necessary investments are only one of the many obstacles to overcome if the Indonesian military is to modernize; another is to define a clear objective and goal for the modernization project.
As strategic analyst Evan Laksmana noted, Indonesia has yet to develop long-term plans for its military, based on sound strategic assessments, scenario-based planning and improvements in the quality of defense organization and personnel. The development of a strategic plan and related institutional and personnel management reforms would likely meet strong resistance from inside and outside the military.
But without proper planning and a long-term strategy, Indonesia’s arms supply is haphazard, often determined by the attractiveness of purchasing conditions rather than an objective analysis of strategic needs.
For example, the main fighter jets of the Indonesian Air Force arrive in six different variants and from three different manufacturers. This considerably complicates the maintenance, logistics, inventory and training of ground personnel. The challenge of managing the interoperability of various platforms further reduces air power efficiency.
While Indonesia finally accepted in February to purchase 36 French-made Dassault Rafale and 36 American-made Boeing F-15EX multirole fighters. It stay engaged to the joint production plans of the South Korean fighter KF-X. Jakarta was even planning to purchase more Su-35 fighters from Russia to complement the 16 other Sukhoi aircraft in service until Washington used the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to pressure it to quash the deal.
The same pattern of “opportunistic” agreements is evident in naval acquisitions. Indonesia has engaged with several European countries as well as with Japan and South Korea to modernize its warships and submarines. His approach has been characterized as sting one supplier against another to get the best price.
In a competitive global arms market, Jakarta is smart about pushing for the best deal. But acquisitions must contribute to an effective global force structure underpinned by clear strategic goals and priorities.
The need for a stronger strategic base for the military modernization program is underscored by the changes in Indonesia’s strategic situation. Amid growing rivalry between the United States and China and tensions in the South China Sea, the strategic prospects for countries in Southeast Asia are more uncertain than at any time in decades.
The challenges of defending a large archipelago in a more complex threat environment add weight to long-standing arguments for Indonesia to devote more resources to strengthening its air and naval capabilities. The historic imperatives of internal security that have skewed spending in favor of the military and produced what some have called “sea blindness”, are largely no longer valid.
Widodo’s 25-year grand scheme will require a sum of money he may struggle to commit after the pandemic. Indonesia’s plans for a force upgrade before the Widodo government and includes a coastal navy of 274 ships, 12 new submarines and 10 fighter squadrons.
The draft funding proposal from the Ministry of Defense was delayed by several months while the government focused on the immediate challenge of health security. Financial challenges will long outlast health challenges.
Beyond the money for new equipment, Indonesia faces significant costs for the maintenance and equipment of existing platforms. A makeover of the forties Nanggala has been would have delayed before it sinks. Its last major overhaul was carried out in Korea in 2012.
But if the Indonesian Defense Ministry wants to modernize successfully, Prabowo is probably the man for the job. His military background and independent political power base equip him well to control how money is spent and to extract sufficient funds from the government. Still, that doesn’t mean he’ll be successful. It faces strong bureaucratic resistance and a lot of competition for scarce dollars in a post-Covid economy.
After challenging the presidency against Widodo in the last two elections, Prabowo is seen as likely to have another tilt in 2024 and could be the favorite. The strength of the polls on his performance as minister will help his outlook. Likewise, would also succeed in dragging the Indonesian army – equipment and organization – into the 21st century.
But reform will neither be easy nor win many friends. More importantly, success will require long-term strategic planning, which in turn means overcoming many vested interests within the military itself.