The Indonesian Navy revealed earlier this week that it plans to purchase two new submarines to augment its fleet.
Navy spokesman Comr. Muhammad Zainuddin told The Jakarta Post that it had opted to procure two Kilo-class submarines from Russia as part of the strategic planning for the next few years. The submarine procurement plan was also confirmed by Indonesian defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who noted that it was consistent with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s plan to buy new weapons systems instead of second-hand items.
The choice of Russian submarines is far from surprising. The Russian government has repeatedly approached the Indonesian government to offer Kilo-class Type 636 submarines as part of a broader effort to broaden their defense relationship. In January, Russia’s ambassador to Indonesia MY Galuzin made a similar pitch when he met with Ryacudu.
Zainuddin’s comments come weeks after news that the Indonesian government under Jokowi would cut the country’s defense budget for next year amid economic woes despite earlier conditional pledges – including from Jokowi himself – to increase it (See: “Will Indonesia Double its Military Budget in 2016?”).
As I reported then, while some had worried about the implications for Indonesia’s ongoing military modernization, including Jokowi’s own “global maritime fulcrum” vision, defense officials and legislators had suggested that key purchases – including submarines – would not be impacted (See: “Why is Indonesia Set to Cut its Military Budget for 2016?”).
When asked about these concerns following an address to the U.S.-Indonesia Society (USINDO) earlier this month, Indonesia’s Speaker of the House of Representatives Setya Novanto told The Diplomat that officials were in the process of ensuring that “priority purchases” – including submarines, helicopters and planes – would not be affected. Zainuddin seemed to echo this sentiment, noting that the purchase plan for submarines was still on the table despite the budget cuts and was awaiting further discussion with the Defense Ministry.
Indonesia currently has only two German-built Type-209 submarines, which is woefully inadequate for the world’s largest archipelagic state. It is also a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s, when Jakarta operated one of the most powerful submarine forces in the Asia-Pacific, with 12 Whiskey-class submarines purchased from the Soviet Union. Those submarines were gradually decommissioned, the last in 1990.
If successfully procured, the two Russian submarines, in addition to three South Korean submarines ordered back in 2012 that are expected to arrive around April 2017, would give Indonesia a total of seven submarines. But with the two Type-209s expected to be decommissioned by 2020, Indonesia would still be far short of the 12 submarines that Indonesian defense officials – including former navy chief Admiral Marsetio – have said that the country needs to police its waters, as Zainuddin himself reiterated.
But that would still constitute an advance for Jakarta in Southeast Asia’s ongoing submarine race amid concerns about its capabilities (See: “Between Aspirations and Reality: Indonesian Foreign Policy After the 2014 Elections”). Within the subregion, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam already have submarines, while Thailand and the Philippines are eyeing the capability as well as part of their broader military modernization ambitions (See: “Is China’s New Submarine Deal with Thailand Now in Peril?”).
That being said, specifics still remain unclear. Zainuddin reportedly said that Indonesia had yet to decide which type would be purchased. He also declined to provide further information on how the purchase would be financed in the wake of the economic slowdown, which is an important consideration. Russian media reports also noted that no date or deadline was specified for the signing of a potential contract.