Last week, a top Indonesian defense official suggested that Indonesia may look at the F-35 joint strike fighter to meet the longstanding requirements of its air force, following issues it has faced with the Su-35 fighter jet deal with Russia.
As I have observed before in these pages, among the key line items in Indonesia’s ongoing defense modernization is its purchase of fighter jets. Of particular note has been whether or not Jakarta will proceed with the longstanding intent to purchase Sukhoi Su-35s from Russia following an agreement reached back in 2018 for up to 11 aircraft. Since then, the agreement has been complicated by various concerns, including funding issues as well as recent geopolitical developments (like the imposition of sanctions by the United States) that have affected how other countries engage with Moscow on the defense front.
This has continued on over the past few months. Indeed, earlier this month, we saw conflicting reports of the status of Indonesia’s interest in the Su-35s. There were suggestions that the deal is all but dead in a report by Bloomberg on March 12 quoting an anonymous official, sparking speculation on what alternatives Indonesia could consider – but that was followed by denials on the Russian side.
Last week, we saw suggestions that Indonesia could look to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter instead to meet its requirements. A top Indonesian defense official suggested that Jakarta was considering looking at the F-35 as an option to meet its needs amid lingering doubts about the Su-35.
Indonesian Defense Minister Sakti Wahyu Trenggono told CNN Indonesia by text message on March 18 that while the Su-35 deal could not go ahead yet “because there are some obstacles,” Indonesia was “exploring to change procurement to F-35 from the US.”
The fact that Indonesia is exploring other options come as no surprise – there have been indications of this previously as well, and it would make sense for Jakarta to do so if there are hiccups in its earlier purchase plans. Trenggono also clarified that the Su-35 deal was technically never canceled, thereby avoiding the optics of Indonesia being seen as abandoning Russia and embracing the United States, which would in all likelihood be seen as a wider geopolitical shift rather than the product of specific developments on a particular acquisition tied to longstanding needs.
Whether or not Indonesia’s consideration of F-35s translates into an actual purchase remains to be seen. Indonesia’s fighter jet requirement is embedded in wider plans, including priorities of the defense ministry out to 2024. But given the financing that would be involved, we would need to see a lot more in the way of specifics that have thus far been lacking, including the nature of the purchase agreement and the specific contract terms that are worked out. Nonetheless, given Indonesia’s own heft as well as the wider geopolitical developments at play, we can expect speculation on this front to continue until more definitive details surface.