Earlier this week, Indonesian defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said that the country would decommission all military aircraft more than 30 years old.
The announcement is not surprising. It comes just weeks after the crash of a C-130 Hercules air force plane killed about 140 people last month. The U.S.-made aircraft had gone into service nearly 50 years ago (See: “Indonesia’s Deadly Air Force Plane Crash”).
As I wrote then, this has predictably led to calls to speed up the modernization of Indonesian military (TNI) equipment. Some have urged the government to buy only new planes instead of relying on grants from other countries to purchase secondhand aircraft, much like the complaints heard earlier this year following an F-16 fighter jet malfunction (See: “Will Indonesia’s Fighter Jet Malfunction Affect its Defense Policy?”). Others, including President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, have used it as an opportunity to once again reiterate the importance of Indonesia striving for self-reliance in its own domestic defense industry (See: “An Indonesian Defense Revolution Under Jokowi?”).
To be sure, the spotlight on Indonesian military aircraft modernization and Ryamizard’s announcement regarding decommissioning are understandable given the tragedy that has occurred. But amid the hysteria over Indonesia’s aging aircraft, it is also important to properly contextualize the challenge so as to prevent misunderstanding and to manage expectations.
First, the assessing the capability of an aircraft – or any military equipment for that matter – by age alone is rather misleading. As I pointed out in an earlier piece, Indonesia is hardly the only country which buys secondhand aircraft, and its decision to do is partly because they are cheaper alternatives for a cash-strapped military that needs them badly and urgently (See: “Will Indonesia’s Fighter Jet Malfunction Affect its Defense Policy?”). Furthermore, an old aircraft can still be of use if it is properly maintained and serviced and if the necessary spare parts are available. The attention should thus be placed on Indonesia’s capacity to manage these aging aircraft rather than simply the fact that they are old.
Second, the scale of the aging problem in Indonesia’s military is far more extensive than is often appreciated and is therefore much more difficult to solve than it appears. In his announcement, Ryamizard did not say how many aircraft would be retired, merely referring to “equipment that is 30, 40, 50 years old, planes and helicopters.” But existing data gives us an idea of just how big this problem is. As Iis Gindarsah of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta recently noted, a majority – or 52 percent to be exact – of TNI equipment has been operated for over three decades. Among the various services, the Air Force is actually in the best shape but still 38 percent of its arsenal is over three decades old (the Navy is at at 59 percent and the Army at 54 percent).
Replacing these aging aircraft is not easy either. As I have noted elsewhere, Indonesia’s military modernization has been progressing very slowly, which is the product of a myriad of factors including budgetary constraints and its procurement process. The Air Force’s slow struggle to replace its old F-5 aircraft is a case in point. While Jokowi has vowed to boost Indonesia’s defense budget to 1.5 percent of GDP from its current 0.8 percent as the country seeks to achieve a so-called Minimal Essential Force by 2024, it is unclear what exactly this will mean for the TNI in terms of its budget to procure new aircraft (“Will Indonesia Double Its Defense Budget in 2016?”). His plan to build up the domestic defense industry is a good long-term aspiration but does little to change this equation now. Ryamizard was also silent in his announcement about whether decommissioning old aircraft would mean Indonesia procuring more planes at a quicker pace to replace them.
Thus, while Indonesia’s latest plane crash should draw everyone’s attention to the country’s aging aircraft problem, they should also be aware of the complexities and trade-offs associated with procurement and military modernization more generally as the Southeast Asian state tackles this challenge.