Asia Defense | Security | Southeast Asia

The Strategic Impact of Indonesian KF-21s

Using the phrase “arms race” is attention grabbing, but a more discerning assessment is necessary when it comes to weapons acquisitions. 

The Strategic Impact of Indonesian KF-21s

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, left, bumps elbows with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong prior to their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul Friday, April 9, 2021.

Credit: Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool Photo via AP

On April 9, a prototype of an advanced multi-role combat jet, the KF-21 Boramae (“young hawk” in Korean) was introduced by South Korea with President Moon Jae-in and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in attendance. While it is clear that Seoul’s decision to develop an indigenous fighter jet is driven by desires for defense industry self-sufficiency, along with national pride, Prabowo’s presence signifies Jakarta’s commitment to acquiring the KF-21, thereby further diversifying Indonesia’s air force fleet to limit reliance on any one foreign supplier. The bulk of Indonesian warplanes currently come from the United States and Russia.

Will the Boramae Impact the Regional Strategic Status Quo? 

Based on publicly sourced research, the KF-21 is touted to be superior to contemporary non-stealthy advanced fighters like the U.S. F-16 or the French Dassault Rafale. The Boramae’s selling points include greater operational range, more advanced avionics and electronic warfare capabilities, along with a Korean-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which has improved target detection and tracking capability versus earlier radar technologies, leading to more effective weapons delivery. Moreover, the KF-21 is designed to possess baseline radar evading stealth capabilities, which are inferior to full-fledged stealth fighters like the F-35, but give it an edge over potential non-stealthy adversaries.

When coupled with a weapons package comprising advanced infrared and radar guided air-to-air missiles for shooting down enemy aircraft, and air-to-ground munitions including accurate missiles and guided bombs, it can be seen why casual observers might infer that Indonesia’s pending order of 50 KF-21s might impact the future balance of military air power in Southeast Asia. 

Important Context for the KF-21 Acquisition  

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Using the phrase “arms race” is attention grabbing, potentially leading to greater media circulation and corresponding advertising revenue. However, it pays to be more discerning and dispassionate when analyzing national weapons acquisition. Regarding future Indonesian KF-21s, it can be argued that Jakarta has two major considerations: expansive territorial defense and aircraft fleet obsolescence, neither of which should be alarming or sensational.

Concerning Indonesian airspace, the TNI-AU (Indonesian Air Force) has 1,904,569 square km of land to cover and a far larger sovereign airspace over Indonesian soil and internal waters, which it needs to patrol. Additionally, operational and security considerations may, from time to time, necessitate missions over Indonesia’s expansive maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ). All of this requires a sufficiently large air fleet which the TNI-AU arguably does not possess, since it currently has only 101 armed aircraft and six maritime patrol planes to police or guard its extensive airspace responsibilities. Furthermore, not all of these airframes are always available or airworthy since a proportion will at any time be undergoing maintenance or grounded awaiting spare parts delivery. Seen in this light, the TNI-AU’s acquisition of 50 Boramae fighters in the next few years does not look like an unreasonable proposition for national security maintenance.

Turning to the issue of air fleet obsolescence, it should be mentioned that the additional 50 KF-21s are probably meant to replace some or all of Indonesia’s out-of-date warplanes. A quick look at the TNI-AU’s fighter inventory reveals a few models that are growing long in the tooth, and would be obsolete in the next decade. Examples include the Russian made Su-27, which was acquired in 2002 and 2006 (five aircraft in total), U.S. made F-16As and F-16Bs ordered in 1989 (10 still in service), and British made BAE Hawk Mk 109 and Mk 209 jets delivered by 1997 (total of 30 in service). If all these jets were retired due to uneconomical maintenance costs or aging unsafe airframes, the replacement Boramae fighters would only bring the TNI-AU’s combat fleet to 106, an increase of only five aircraft, which hardly deserves media attention. 

Operational Issues Relevant to TNI-AU Modernization 

Lastly, there are intangible and tangible issues related to an air force’s operational readiness and effectiveness, which most journalists never consider. Intangible factors like doctrinal effectiveness and pilot quality are hard to measure while tangible aspects such as availability of spare parts and sufficient stocks of compatible munitions are seldom investigated by the press.

With reference to doctrine, these refer to guidelines on how best to employ military force to achieve set objectives, while pilot readiness is often judged based on a few factors such as the number of annual flying hours, performance during international military exercises, and combat experience of the air force in question. Inasmuch as military doctrine is often classified, there are no means of examining authenticated TNI-AU doctrine; hence it is prudent to withhold comment about the efficacy of Indonesian air force tactics and strategy. 

As for the aviators, competence should not be underestimated but one should note that the real-world operational experience of the TNI-AU only covers counterinsurgency missions against domestic rebels, not operations against the combat forces of other states. Also, it is not known whether Indonesian pilots receive the same number of flying hours as NATO air forces (100-150 hours/year), but it must be noted that concrete issues like spare parts availability can affect airworthiness to such an extent that fleets can be grounded, forcing pilots to resort to ground based simulators. For example, in 2005 logistical deprivation from a U.S. embargo resulted in minimal to nil operational availability for U.S.-made Indonesian assets like F-16s and A-4s. 

Finally, the impactfulness of an air force rests to a substantial extent on its stocks of missiles and bombs delivered by its aircraft. Putting aside the quality of such armaments, open source research reveals no information about the amount of airborne weapons maintained by the TNI-AU. But it is notable that they procure both Russian and U.S. munitions, leading to greater complexity and strain on the logistical system, which might well hamper operational availability and the air force’s potential. Since the KF-21 is slated to employ both U.S. and European missiles, the eventual incorporation of an Indonesian Boramae fleet could overstretch the TNI-AU’s supply network. 

Rational Analysis Versus Hype 

If anything, the KF-21 sale is an exercise in military, strategic, and industrial diplomacy by the Moon administration in support of Seoul’s ASEAN-centric “New Southern Policy.” From Jakarta’s perspective, the Boramae acquisition is probably intended to effect timely defense modernization for the TNI-AU while preserving status quo national interests. As such, overeager commentators should be encouraged to exercise restraint, especially when they understand little about the national imperatives of regional middle powers, and limitations or inner workings of their militaries.