Can the US Marines Help Build Indonesia’s Amphibious Capabilities?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Can the US Marines Help Build Indonesia’s Amphibious Capabilities?


As a vast archipelagic nation-state prone to natural disasters, having a strong amphibious capability would appear to be a natural requirement for Indonesia. And as a part of the Indonesian Navy, the Marine Corps (Korps Marinir or KORMAR) has a key role to play in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). Under the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint, Indonesia envisages by 2024 a greenwater navy capable of undertaking missions within its immediate regional waters as well as limited outreach beyond.

Under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, KORMAR, much like its sister branches, did experience some qualitative improvements. There was expected to continue under current President Joko Widodo, who in November 2014 outlined a vision of Indonesia as a Global Maritime Fulcrum. Of the five pillars of this vision, enhancing maritime defense lends further impetus for the ongoing MEF plan. Moreover, this pillar implicitly goes beyond continuing the primary focus of equipment upgrades. In particular, there is more to amphibious capacity-building than simply acquiring the hardware.

For instance, even an advanced, relatively well-funded navy such as the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) faces similar challenges. In the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the JMSDF arrived on scene within a matter of hours. However, since it had no real amphibious capability – despite having some amphibious hardware – there was practically nothing to be done except to sit offshore while an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 survivors – who otherwise could have been saved – froze to death in the first 24-48 hours. Hence, there are some very practical reasons for developing and improving amphibious capabilities.

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Opportunity for Engagement

Building amphibious capabilities certainly includes intensifying training, including engagement with foreign counterparts. Being traditionally more accustomed to bilateral, intra-Southeast Asian joint training and exercises, it is apparent that KORMAR seeks to develop a new area of expertise in broader region-wide initiatives. Notably, it played a key role in Indonesia-hosted Exercise Komodo, a multinational HA/DR exercise held in early 2014. And during the most recent Rim of the Pacific exercise hosted by the U.S., KORMAR deployed a contingent that performed admirably.

However, the Indonesians have room for improvement. An ambitious slew of initiatives is in the works: upgrading of aging hardware, improving personnel welfare, and developing human capital. The last aspect ties in with former Indonesian Navy chief Admiral Marsetio’s idea of a “World Class Navy” – increasing the quality of Indonesian naval servicemen (KORMAR personnel included), which can be accomplished through enhanced professional military education and training. This includes expanded interactions with foreign counterparts to learn and share best practices. It is thus clear that capacity-building for KORMAR is going to be more than acquiring new amphibious fighting vehicles or landing vessels. Although Jakarta might fulfill these requirements on its own, it can benefit from external assistance in its capacity-building efforts.

Washington has an opportunity to step up to this. In the revised version of “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” published in March this year, an increase in U.S. strategic attention to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is envisaged. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is designated to maintain a Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Expeditionary Unit in the region, and deploy a Marine Rotational Force to Australia as well as introducing new assets, such as the MV-22 Osprey. One of the objectives spelt out in this revised U.S. document is to enhance regional partnerships through expanded maritime security operations, shared maritime domain awareness and longer multilateral engagements. The aim is to build and sustain regional capacities to deal with local maritime security challenges.

Seen in this light, the USMC has a major role to play in helping to build the amphibious capacities of regional militaries, not least the Indonesians. The only question is how. To date, Washington has maintained a set of military engagements with Jakarta since the lifting of the arms embargo. This includes the extension of technical aid, such as helping Indonesia build an integrated maritime surveillance system network for maritime security purposes, as well as continuing the customary joint training and exercises, such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) series.

Expanding the Scope

Just recently, the U.S. and Indonesia completed this year’s iteration of the CARAT exercise. This is useful, but what matters more is what happens the 360 days of the year when the Americans are not around to help sustain Indonesia’s amphibious capacity-building efforts. The U.S. Department of Defense’s current approach of conducting short-duration joint training and exercises with the Indonesians a few times annually is so short-term that it tends to shortchange amphibious development. This is hardly in line with the stated goals of the revised maritime strategy for the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, not least if one considers Indonesia a key U.S. partner seen in the light of its geostrategic position.

Perhaps the key to drawing out the Indonesians is having Marines permanently assigned to KORMAR, as a means of building a more durable relationship via daily interactions. This approach has proven effective in Australia, Japan and South Korea. Stationing the right USMC personnel in Indonesia could help Jakarta play a larger role in Indo-Asia-Pacific and also assist in its Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. However, any such move would have to be calibrated, taking into consideration several potential hurdles in the way.

For example, Jakarta may be concerned about creating the wrong perceptions by allowing this permanent USMC presence. Domestically, it may also constitute a time-bomb with some constituents likely perceiving it as a move by Washington to further intensify its military footprint in the region. Even moderates will be worried whether it might trigger a potential regional backlash, not least having Indonesia seen by Beijing as being complicit in a U.S.-led containment effort.

One way to circumvent these obstacles is to proceed gradually. For a start, one USMC officer serving as advisor can based in Indonesia with KORMAR, or if necessary in the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. The idea is to furnish a platform from which the officer can constantly interact with KORMAR, and promote and assist Indonesia’s amphibious capability building. The candidate would have to be carefully selected. He or she would need to have appreciable knowledge of Indonesia and its culture. This officer also needs to be able to operate in think-tank, media, and defense policy circles in order to sell “amphibiosity.” Fortuitously, the USMC has a number of potential candidates.

If this pilot scheme is successful, the logical next step would be to station a small USMC advisory team. This phase can possibly be accomplished without local political opposition so long as the USMC officer works the ground correctly and assiduously. In sum, enhancing USMC engagement with KORMAR would have to start small and aim for gradual progress appropriate for Indonesia’s amphibious capacity-building.

Some Final Thoughts

Unless the idea of amphibious operations is continuously pushed, it tends to fade into the background and be seen as a distraction from more “important” military operations. There seems to be a sort of equilibrium in most militaries, by which the individual armed services naturally focus on the core functions and capacities they consider most important, foremost being warfighting capabilities such as fighter jets, tanks, and combat ships and submarines. Moreover, the individual services do not naturally cooperate with each other. Yet amphibious capabilities require “some of each,” as the services must cooperate for joint operations combining sea/ground/air capabilities. This can be deemed contrary to the natural order of things in any military.

Not surprisingly, then, amphibious capabilities tend to be overlooked and when the need arises the services scramble to respond – and usually not very well. Once the need “recedes,” things go back to the equilibrium. This certainly applies to the case of Indonesia. Following the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in December 2004, Jakarta endeavored to bolster HA/DR capabilities. The purchase of new landing platform, dock vessels was one major initiative. But over the past decade, it is also evident that the equilibrium has taken hold as Indonesia began to pay less attention to amphibious capabilities.

Inserting a USMC officer into Indonesia would be intended to keep this equilibrium from asserting itself, at least initially. The USMC has substantial expertise and knowledge to share with its Indonesian counterpart. And such new initiatives would be in line with the stated objectives of the revised maritime strategy. In consequence, a “building block” approach by doing it the correct way, with minimum political fuss, will facilitate not just KORMAR’s amphibious capacity-building but also enhance the U.S. military partnership with Indonesia. This will help more fully manifest Washington’s commitment to its Asia “rebalancing” efforts.

Grant Newsham is senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, based in Tokyo, and a retired U.S. Marine Colonel. He served as the first U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense Force from 2011-2013 and was instrumental in the development of the Japan Self Defense Force’s nascent amphibious capability. He remains active in amphibious development in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Swee Lean Collin Koh is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He primarily researches on naval modernization in Southeast Asia.

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