The crash of a C-130 Hercules plane in Indonesia on June 30 has again exposed the dire state of the country's military hardware: That it is made up largely of ageing weapons.
Air Force officials have insisted that the military transport plane, made in the United States in 1964, had been well maintained and airworthy, and that age had nothing to do with the accident. The plane was flying from Medan in North Sumatra to the Natuna Islands in Indonesia's northern-most frontier in the South China Sea when it crashed minutes after taking off, killing 121 people on board and 22 on the ground.
As investigations into the cause of the accident began, politicians and officials were already debating the pressing need for the National Defence Forces, or TNI, to modernise its weapons.
Exactly how antiquated TNI's weapons are was spelt out by Mr Iis Gindarsah of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia, who said last week that 52 per cent of TNI equipment has been operated for over three decades. In an article in The Jakarta Post, he said 38 per cent of the Air Force's arsenal is over 30 years old; the Navy fared worse, with 59 per cent, and the Army, 54 per cent.
Indonesia needs to come up with a more transparent and predictable plan of its military development intentions... to allay concerns not only among neighbours who fear what a militarily powerful Indonesia means, but also among stakeholders at home.
It is hardly the posture of a modern Indonesian military for the 21st century.
But more money, as many politicians are advocating, isn't necessarily the solution when defence has already been consistently receiving the largest share of the government's budget in the last three years, taking over from the education sector.
President Joko Widodo's call to develop the national defence industry and cut the country's dependence on imported weapons may sound politically attractive, but it is an aspirational, long-term solution that doesn't address TNI's readiness to deal with immediate and medium-term challenges, which range from protecting the nation's borders, including its vast waters, and dealing with major disaster relief operations, to - as improbable as it may seem today - countering foreign aggression.
The challenge for Indonesia's defence procurement programme lies more in getting its priorities right and in getting politicians off TNI's back so that it gets to buy the weapons it truly needs, including getting right the specifications and the sources of such purchases.
Most of all, TNI needs to realign spending priorities based more on the nation's threat perceptions, and less on the internal politics between the three services.
In the past, the Army, the largest of the three, received the largest share of the arms budget. That may have been acceptable when TNI was still dealing with internal security. But this argument breaks down after the formal separation of defence and security in 2002, with the National Police taking the lead in national security.
As TNI focuses chiefly on national defence, it became clear that the Navy and the Air Force need to upgrade their weapons more urgently than the Army if Indonesia, an archipelago nation of 17,000 islands, wants to protect its vast territory effectively.
MILITARY'S SHOPPING LIST
Since 2009, TNI has already put in place an ambitious programme to modernise its weapons systems, targeting to achieve what it calls the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) by 2024.
The goal is to build a modern military which is able to deal with any threat across the vast archipelagic state. The somewhat- ambitious programme comes with a huge shopping list, including
180 jet fighters, 300 warships and 12 submarines.
The programme is divided into three five-year phases, with the first one completed last year.
General Moeldoko pronounced, before he stepped down as TNI chief this month, that he had overseen the completion of the first-third of the programme, leaving his successor, General Gatot Nurmantyo, with the task of implementing the next phase.
The MEF concept was drawn up in tandem with the defence White Paper, published in 2008. A plan by the Ministry of Defence to come up with a new White Paper, one that takes into account the changing geopolitical and security environment, by the end of 2013, has failed to materialise.
While the shopping list under the MEF remains unchanged, TNI still needs to reorder the priorities of what it should buy first, for at least three reasons.
First, the emerging geopolitical and security environment is vastly different from the one spelled out in the 2008 White Paper. The rise of China can no longer be considered peaceful, considering the simmering tension over territorial claims in the South China Sea pitting China against smaller South-east Asian neighbours. The United States is already pivoting its military strength towards Asia, and the Philippines and Vietnam have been quick to align themselves with the Americans.
Indonesia can no longer assume that China would not try to assert its claim over the larger South China Sea, which would include the Natuna Islands. Recent spats with Australia, particularly over Asian asylum seekers making the crossing from Indonesia to Australia, suggests that TNI must also start watching its southern flanks more seriously. And there is also the recurrent tension with Malaysia over the Ambalat Sea, a territory in dispute between the two countries.
Second, President Joko was elected last year on a new vision of Indonesia as a "maritime nation" (implicitly meaning a maritime power) that seeks to protect the economic resources in and under its vast waters, secure the nation's maritime borders, and live up to its responsibility in ensuring the safety of international navigation through its waters, including the South China Sea. Mr Joko has stressed that Indonesia would use its diplomatic resources to help mediate conflicts in the South China Sea.
The "thousand friends, zero enemies" foreign policy concept of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had somehow impeded TNI, if not madeit complacent, in its weapons modernisation programme.
The threat perceptions stipulated in the 2008 White Paper, which foresees no immediate danger of external threats, may have to be modified to take into account these two developments.
Third, Indonesia's rise as an Asian power necessitates a credible military force to supplement its political and economic strengths.
Indonesia's rise, which began under Dr Yudhoyono, is widely recognised at home and abroad. The current defence posture, however, hardly fits that of a rising power. Given Indonesia's ambitions to play a more active global role, commensurate with its size as the fourth-most-populous country in the world, it will need to have both the soft and hard powers at its disposal.
Budgetary constraints have inevitably affected TNI's modernisation, but there is at least a national consensus, even from traditional critics of TNI's past role in internal security, to gradually increase military spending. In spite of the increase in recent years, Indonesia's defence spending is still below 1 per cent of gross domestic product, much lower than those of almost all its close neighbours.
An initial goal to increase it to a modest 1.5 per cent last year has yet to materialise. The MEF programme hinges on Indonesia raising defence spending to this level and to above 2.5 per cent beyond 2019.
A greater challenge facing TNI is intervention from politicians, including, at times, the government of the day, in trying to dictate what the military should buy, based on political considerations.
A case in point was the contract to buy Sukhoi jet fighters from Russia in 2003, signed by then President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a decision that sparked controversy because it was considered to be more politically nuanced rather than based on strict criteria of what Indonesia needed.
Internal TNI politics appeared to have influenced the decision in 2012 to buy 163 Leopard tanks from Germany. The Army says Indonesia needs them because neighbours Singapore and Malaysia possess similar-class main battle tanks, but it is an argument that could have been easily countered by asking if these tanks were really a priority.
Existing threat perceptions dictated that the money would have been better spent on improving the Navy and Air Force capabilities.
When President Joko inaugurated Gen Nurmantyo as the new TNI chief last week, many took it as another sign of the Army's political clout. The job should have gone to the Air Force, but Mr Joko insisted that he was not bound by tradition to rotate the job between the three forces. Gen Nurmantyo was quick to allay concerns, and assured the House of Representatives during his confirmation hearing that he understood well the need to strengthen the naval and air powers.
Indonesia needs to come up with a more transparent and predictable plan of its military development intentions, including the current arms modernisation programme, to allay concerns not only among neighbours who fear what a militarily powerful Indonesia means, but also among stakeholders at home.
A new and more updated defence White Paper, one that includes not only the shopping list of weapons, but also their order of priority, will go a long way in ensuring widespread support to build a modern, professional and credible TNI.
The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post newspaper.
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.