Tough Times Ahead for the Indonesian Navy?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Murdani Usman

Tough Times Ahead for the Indonesian Navy?


Almost a year has elapsed since Indonesian President Joko Widodo revealed his Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. Since then, Jakarta has undertaken several initiatives aimed at fulfilling the five pillars of the vision: maritime culture, marine resources, maritime infrastructure and connectivity, maritime diplomacy, and maritime defense.

The last of these pillars is essentially an enabler of the other four pillars and not standalone. When Widodo came to power, he effectively inherited his predecessor’s legacy of modernizing the Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Laut, TNI-AL for short). The challenge is to continue and sustain that modernization.

Great Expectations

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The contemporary TNI-AL modernization is inspired by the Minimum Essential Force Blueprint conceived over the 2010-24 timeline, executed in three strategic plans (rencana strategis in Bahasa Indonesia, or renstra for short). Renstra I (2010-14) was completed last year. Since then, the TNI-AL is at Renstra II, which runs up to 2019.

The end-state, going by the envisaged plan, is to create a greenwater TNI-AL by 2024 – a service that is balanced and capable of undertaking an array of missions within the immediate regional waters while having limited ability to project force into distant waters.

By 2024, the service is meant to comprise 274 vessels and 137 aircraft of various types. The former category is divided into the Combat Strike Group (110 vessels including 10-12 submarines, 56 frigates and corvettes, 26 missile- and 12 torpedo fast attack craft), the Patrol Group (66 patrol vessels), and a 98-vessel Support Force. The 137 aircraft include up to 35 maritime patrol aircraft.

Ever since Renstra I was kicked into motion, the TNI-AL has ridden the momentum of government support. In January 2013, then Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro announced plans to possibly reduce the renstras to two, aiming to fulfill MEF targets by 2019 instead of 2024. Buoyed by having achieved 28.7 percent of the MEF targets that year, Indonesian military authorities optimistically predicted in 2014 that 40-42 percent will be met by the time Renstra I is completed.

Renstra I (2010-14): “Renaissance” for the TNI-AL?

It would be imperative here to take stock of the gains made by the TNI-AL over Renstra I. Indeed, the period of 2010-14 marked a “renaissance” of sorts for the service following the significant acquisition programs (for example, SIGMA-90 corvettes, Makassar-class landing platform, docks, and Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles) made in the preceding years. These new primary weapon systems (alutsista in Bahasa Indonesia) represent a stark contrast to the malaise suffered by the TNI-AL following the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98.

Notwithstanding derogatory comments about the lackluster progress of the TNI-AL modernization efforts, Renstra I did oversee oft-overlooked qualitative improvements to the alutsista Indonesia relies on for maritime defense.

For example, the PKR10514 (modified Dutch SIGMA-105) frigate is equipped with the VL-MICA, a vertically-launched air defense system that can destroy incoming high-performance aerial and missile targets at 20 kilometers. Suffice to say, prior to that, the TNI-AL relied on the Mistral SIMBAD/SADRAL that has only an effective 6-kilometer range. The PKR thus confers on the TNI-AL a real shipboard anti-air warfare capability for the first time.

In 2012, the TNI-AL was poised to revitalize its ageing undersea capability with the acquisition of three submarines from South Korea. A French-built naval research ship KRI Rigel equipped with an advanced autonomous underwater vehicle was commissioned in late 2014. Regrettably, it did not arrive in time to assist in the search and recovery of the ill-fated AirAsia QZ8501.

Other noteworthy qualitative improvements include the induction of new CN235 PATMAR maritime patrol aircraft and most recently AS-656MBe Panther anti-submarine helicopters – altogether representing a major enhancement to the long-underequipped TNI-AL Naval Aviation.

The Korps Marinir, Indonesia’s Marine Corps, undergoes mobility enhancement and mechanization with the purchase of new amphibious fighting vehicles from Russia and Ukraine, along with the construction of the indigenous Teluk Bintuni-class of landing ship, tank.

Size Matters

In all, despite the modest quantities of new alutsista procured, the TNI-AL has attained laudable qualitative improvements. The question remains whether the MEF targets, going by the current pace of modernization efforts, can realistically be met.

In July 2015, outgoing Indonesian military chief General Moeldoko admitted that the envisaged 40-42 percent of MEF targets could not be met. Instead, by the end of Renstra I only 34 percent had been attained. Moeldoko’s successor, General Gatot Nurmantyo is expected to boost this figure to 68 percent. However, this means ramping up expenditures.

In March this year, Moeldoko cautioned that defense expenditures, set at Rp102 trillion ($7.7 billion), will be increased to around Rp109 trillion by 2017 only if the economy grows by 7 percent. The sustainability of MEF is thus irrevocably contingent on sustained economic growth in order to reach its envisaged 2024 targets.

But time is conspiring against modernization efforts; the TNI-AL’s alutsista is aging. By 2008 (pre-Renstra I) about 74 percent of the alutsista optimized for maritime defense were aged 20 years or more, 15 percent between 11 and 19 years, and barely 11 percent counted as “young” – at 10 years or less. These figures had improved by the time Renstra I was completed, at 67 percent, 11 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in the fall of 2014.

It will be misleading to say that such improvements are attributed solely to Renstra I. In fact, results attained by the close of 2014 were in no small part due to the pre-Renstra I projects, for example the delivery of new SIGMA corvettes in 2007-10.

Buying Second-Hand?

Compounding the problem of aging equipment is also the issue of relying on second-hand procurements as the alternative. For example, by the time the three British-built Multi-Role Light Frigates originally intended for Brunei were delivered to the TNI-AL in late 2014, they were already past a decade old.

Certainly for a fiscally constrained Indonesia, new assets entail high costs, especially when procured overseas. The required fiscal, human and material investments are substantial, since it is not enough to just purchase platforms – the associated supporting infrastructure, logistics, and training are also essential.

This invariably limits the quantity that can be purchased at any one time. For instance, the TNI-AL has originally planned for a total of 40 SIGMAs to be procured by 2015. But as of 2014, the force size of this type had stalled at just four vessels. A pair of more capable PKR10514 only began construction in recent months.

However, the commonly used alternative approach of buying second-hands is not sustainable in the long run, as a result of age and the potential risk of accidents. Moreover, second-hand buys may come with a superficially attractive price tag but still entail “hidden costs.”

For example, Jakarta purchased 39 former East German warships at $468-million, but had to spend another $800 million on refurbishment and requisite supporting infrastructure. Other “hidden costs” include inflated operating expenditures. An Indonesian government audit conducted in 2007 found that the TNI-AL had squandered Rp64 billion in petroleum, oil, and lubricants consumption attributable to aging warships.

Newbuilds: Good to Have, Costly to Buy

To Jakarta’s credit, there have been conscious efforts to avoid buying second-hand, such as the rejection of used Libyan warships and Russian submarines because of their dubious operational conditions. However, given the MEF targets by 2024, Indonesia is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Some equipment has to be sourced from overseas, especially if it constitutes the core of the TNI-AL’s combat capability. “Big ticket” newbuilds such as frigates and submarines are clearly too expensive to purchase in significant quantities.

Procuring newbuilds through foreign or domestic sources require a considerable gestation period – at least five to eight years from the time an alutsista project is being conceived, a process involving negotiations, contracting, construction, and a mandatory series of equipment trials prior to final operational capability. Delays may stretch this timeline to a decade or more. The more complex the platform, the longer it takes.

This means that if one regards the results achieved by the end of Renstra I to be any indication, one-for-one alutsista replacement of existing MEF targets may prove to be too ambitious. New alutsista purchased during Renstra I may possibly meet in-service timelines within Renstra II. However, quantities inducted into service for such high-capability assets as frigates and submarines will leave much to be desired.

Rethinking and Recalibrating the MEF Targets?

To meet the original MEF targets, more substantial procurements will be needed during Renstra II. But the perennial problem boils down again to funding. To compound the problem, by the end of Renstra II in 2019 alutsista that were already more than 20 years old as of 2014 will have to be readied for retirement, whereas the process for block replacements will need to be initiated for those 11-19 years or less.

To accommodate the limited budget, long gestation periods for especially high-capability alutsista, problems of second-hand buys, and the limitations of Indonesia’s domestic industries, it may be worth rethinking and recalibrating the MEF targets to ensure that TNI-AL force goals are met by 2024.

The basic starting point would be to consider Indonesia’s maritime interests and corresponding naval force priorities. However, the current State Defense Policy 2014 (Kebijakan Pertahanan Negara Tahun 2014) essentially constitutes a “grab bag” of all conceivable challenges to Indonesia’s maritime interests – non-traditional threats such as illegal fishing, the South China Sea flashpoint, and so on.

An oft-suggested, straightforward solution will be to acquire the widest possible array of capabilities to cope with such a broad spectrum of security challenges. But this is scarcely helpful insofar as limited funds are concerned. There is clearly a need to prioritize those interests in order to recalibrate force requirements, which enables the optimal allocation of scarce resources.

Despite the recent South China Sea flare-ups, which led Jakarta to embark on a military buildup in the Natuna Islands in preparation for high-intensity operations, it is more evident that low-intensity scenarios involving non-state actors appear more conceivable – a “clear and present threat” so to speak. As such, a hi/lo-lo/hi dual-configuration for the envisaged TNI-AL force composition could be one possible solution.

Less on the Heavies

The hi/lo configuration applies to the Combat Strike Group, for which 10-12 submarines and 56 frigates and corvettes would seem ambitious. The proposed recalibration envisages a reduction in the numbers of larger high-capability platforms – the frigates and corvettes – while increasing the proportion of missile-armed fast attack craft, which are comparatively cheaper and simpler to construct in larger numbers.

This approach leverages on the niche strengths of Indonesia’s domestic industrial base, which has so far produced the KCR40/60-series fast attack craft for the TNI-AL as well as making notable strides in developing combat systems. In fact, the KCR40-60-series has been one of the major areas experiencing rapid growth during Renstra I, with up to 18 units in all being commissioned or in various stages of construction and trials since 2011.

The end state of this recalibration may be a smaller fleet of frigates and corvettes, which serve as flotilla leaders and key command and control nodes for combat strike task forces in times of war. They may also conduct defense diplomacy missions, such as the TNI-AL’s regular contribution to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

A ‘PKR-Minus’ Solution?

The proposed lo/hi configuration would suit the Patrol Group. There may be a need to recalibrate the MEF targets by reducing the envisaged 110 vessels in the Combat Strike Group in order to ramp up the Patrol Group from the 66 vessels originally planned. The indigenous 250-ton PC-43 fast patrol craft is intended to form the Patrol Group’s mainstay. However, its size confines it to inshore and coastal missions, leaving it less suited for sustained operations in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) optimized for EEZ duties may be worth considering. Such vessels need not be technically complex, but should possess the requisite seakeeping and loitering characteristics. They are cheaper than combat-configured frigates and corvettes, and can be equipped with no heavier than a medium-caliber gun for credible deterrence against non-state actors.

With that, a potential solution may be to scale down the initial technical requirements for the frigates and corvettes, assuming the retention of the envisaged force size of 56 vessels. This “PKR-minus” configuration envisages a common SIGMA-105 hull outfitted first as an OPV for potential future scaling up to its full warfighting potential. In any case, the hull is usually one of the cheapest warship components. Most of the high costs originates from the combat systems and integration work. This is not an uncommon approach.

Consider the Polish Navy, which converted the sole Project-621 Gawron II (modified German MEKO A100) ship from its original multi-purpose corvette configuration into an OPV, following over a decade of delays. While fitting it out as a multipurpose corvette would cost another PLN1 billion ($266 million), reconfiguring it as an OPV costs just PLN250 million instead. The ship, the ORP Slazak, was eventually launched in July 2015, something that would have not been possible if the Polish Navy had insisted on sticking to its original configuration.

Austere Times Ahead

Indeed, even discounting the alutsista, meeting MEF targets will invariably require investments in several other areas, such as the potential increase in crewing requirements to ensure a round-the-clock naval presence. This certainly goes against the grain of the “zero-growth” manpower policy described in existing defense plans.

Not only that, increased investment in human capital is needed to raise the quality of TNI-AL personnel to a level able to cope with a multitude of complex challenges. Moeldoko once cautioned about the long-term sustainability of increasing remuneration and base salaries of military personnel. This is not to forget the need to invest in the logistics for sustained operations. In particular, whether the problem of fuel shortages (just 27 percent of the required amount allotted to the TNI-AL as reported in November 2014) will be resolved remains to be seen.

Coping with multiple competing needs will be a tough challenge for the TNI-AL. There is simply too much to do and insufficient wherewithal available. Purchasing assets in itself is not an adequate solution, given that naval capacity-building remains a holistic undertaking. With the 2024 timeline in mind, some innovation and creativity will be needed if the TNI-AL is to secure Indonesia’s maritime interests in a time geopolitical and fiscal uncertainty. Recalibrating the MEF force goals may be the best way forward.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of international Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He primarily researches naval modernization in Southeast Asia.

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