Asia Defense

Will Indonesia’s Fighter Jet Malfunction Affect Its Defense Policy?

A recent incident has caused some to question past decisions.

On April 28, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said the Indonesian government would review its policy on receiving primary weaponry defense system grants from other countries.

The ‘review’ comes after an April 16 incident where an F-16 fighter jet malfunctioned and caught fire during a ceremony to honor President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. The mishap  involving the F-16, which was one of several that the United States has recently provided to the Indonesian military (TNI), has prompted some leading politicians and lawmakers to question the government’s policy of procuring refurbished jets to augment the country’s air defense system. They argue that Indonesia’s money may have been better spent on new aircraft to help the country avoid such technical difficulties and better compete with other countries in the region.

However, as Ryamizard emphasized in his remarks, an investigation is still ongoing and it is still unclear what exactly happened and where the blame lies.

But what is clear is that this isn’t a case of the Indonesia buying old junk and suddenly discovering that it was damaged beyond repair. The F-16 C/D block 25s that Indonesia received from the United States were upgraded to block 52 standard by the US Air Force beforehand, and Jakarta paid over $600 million for these upgrades which included new wings, landing gear, engines, avionics as well as other systems. At the time, this was seen as a good alternative compared to the aging F-5 aircraft which were too expensive to maintain and operate and the older fleet of F-16 Block 15s. As Ryamizard himself candidly admitted, “It’s true that the jet fighters they gave to us were used aircraft, but their conditions were better than ours.”

It is also clear that framing Indonesia’s choice at the time as simply being between buying old equipment on the cheap or new equipment for a higher price tag – as some are now doing – vastly understates the complex considerations that policymakers often face when making such decisions. In the case of the F-16s, for example, it is true that buying new planes at the time would have meant getting access to newer technology and perhaps lesser initial maintenance. But as critics have themselves conceded, given Indonesia’s cash-strapped military, limited defense capabilities and vast airspace, it would have also meant that Jakarta would have been able to buy far less jets – six instead of 24 if we go by one initial Air Force plan – than it would need to meet its needs and would be sufficient for its pilots to fly to maintain their flying skills. The point here is not to lay out a full list of the considerations that go into these decisions – which are sometimes prone to various ‘irregularities as well’ – or to pick a side. It is merely to problematize a rather simplistic dichotomy that some have presented.

Following the incident, Air Force chief Agus Supriatna ordered the temporary grounding of the F-16 fleet for evaluation due to safety reasons. But Ryamizard has said that for the time being, the Indonesian government would still agree to receive any weaponry defense system granted by other countries despite a policy review.  The Air Force currently as five of the F-16s from the United States and is awaiting the delivery of 19 more.