Indonesia is currently in the process of updating a part of its eclectic mix of military aircraft. The three platforms which represent Jakarta’s most formidable airborne capability are the U.S. General Dynamics (GD) F-16, Russian Sukhoi-27, and Sukhoi-30MK. The Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) reflects the country’s recent history international relations, operating a mixed bag of Russian, U.S., Brazilian, and European aircraft.
Since its independence in 1945, the country has fielded aircraft from both sides of the Iron Curtain, often reflecting its political alignment. In 1986s, Indonesia purchased a batch of F-16s, intended to supplement its fleet of F-5E Tigers. However, after the U.S. imposed sanctions following Jakarta’s involvement in the 1999 East Timor independence, these quickly dilapidated due to a lack of spare parts. As a result, the TNI-AU acquired Russian jets. Together with the F-16s, which were modernized after Washington lifted sanctions in 2005, these aircraft still form the mainstay of Indonesia’s aerial combat fleet.
As previously reported by the Diplomat, Indonesia has been looking to beef up its aerial combat capabilities. For its long term needs, Indonesia has signed up to South Korea’s KF-X program, an ambitious project aimed at providing Seoul and Jakarta with a “4,5 generation fighter.” This fighter is supposed to fill a role between the F-16 currently fielded by both states, and the F-35, which has been deemed a too expensive option. Indonesia currently has a 20 percent stake in the project, and is expected to deploy 80 KF-Xs by 2030. (South Korea owns the remaining 80 percent and is expected to field 120.)
An important medium-term solution is to replace the six aging F-5s with a number of fourth-generation fighters by the end of the decade. Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro previously stated ”We are in the process of evaluating which jet fighter will best suit our requirements, whether the aircraft is from Russia, USA or other countries.” This year, Indonesia’s General Moeldoko said that “the ministry is looking at buying 16 aircraft, but the type and number of aircraft depends on Indonesia’s financial position.” Two months ago, Jakarta announced that it will purchase a squadron of 16 Sukhoi-35s (Flanker E,) an upgraded version of the Su-27 currently in the TNI-AU’s service.
However, other aircraft companies are still hoping to penetrate the Indonesian market. Other contenders include GD’s upgraded Vipers (Block 52+ “V” version,) the Eurofighter Typhoon and Swedish Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen. Under Indonesian law new defense acquisitions must include a minimum 30 percent direct offset, while the selection criteria have been weighted 30 percent for aircraft/system performance, 30 percent acquisition/life-cycle costs, and 40 percent for industrial cooperation.
The Swedes seems to have stepped up its competition. According to Jane’s, Saab recently announced that it is not only seeking to sell Indonesia its Gripens, but is sweetening the deal with a “Swedish Air Power Package.” Saab said that this package consists of the “latest version” of its Gripen fighter aircraft; the company’s Erieye Airborne Early Warning & Control System (AWACS;) ground-based command and control; tactical datalinks; industrial co-operation, including transfers of technology and local production; and extensive job creation, which Saab said would reach “thousands of jobs.”
This package could be a worthwhile investment. The Gripen model on the table is probably the “E/F” model, also known as the Gripen NG (New Generation.) According to Saab, the Gripen NG is “Revolutionary because it combines advanced technology and operational effectiveness in an affordable package that no other fighter aircraft can even hope to match.” As both cost and industrial cooperation are key criteria for Jakarta, the Gripen has a fighting chance against the other contenders.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage Saab faces is the Gripen’s lack of operations experience. The F-16 has a proven track record, having participated in combat operations since the 1980s. Although the Su-35 hasn’t yet seen action, its predecessor, the Su-27, has seen action since the 1990s (although mostly not in Russian service.) The Gripen has only seen service during Operation “Unified Protector,” when Swedish planes conducted air-to-ground sorties against Muhammar Gaddafi’s forces.
However, two other points help Saab’s case. Firstly, the Erieye AWACS will be a “force multiplier” for long-range TNI-AU patrols. Considering Indonesia’s vast territory, this could definitely be an advantage. Secondly, several other Southeast Asian states have expressed interest in Saab’s kit. In 2011, Thailand officially made operational its first Gripens. Thailand currently fields 12 Swedish planes, and has reportedly been seeking to acquire six more. The Philippines and Malaysia have also expressed an interest in the aircraft.
The Su-35 might have won a battle, but the war for Indonesia’s new fighter is far from over.