Russia’s War on Ukraine: Lessons for the Indonesian Armed Forces

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Russia’s War on Ukraine: Lessons for the Indonesian Armed Forces

The European conflict has laid bare several vulnerabilities in the TNI’s modernization plans.

Russia’s War on Ukraine: Lessons for the Indonesian Armed Forces
Credit: Depositphotos

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine continues to have a global impact, including on Indonesia. This is not just true in the economic sector – the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, has led to sharp increases in the prices of global commodities such as wheat and oil – but also in terms of the fate of the Russian-made major weapon systems which are currently operated by the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). In particular, there are concerns about the impact of Western sanctions on Russian and Belarusian defense companies such as Rosoboronexport, Kurganmashzavod, 150 Aircraft Repair Plant (ARP), and 558 ARP that have served as a source of purchases, maintenance, and upgrades for the Indonesian military.

Some may argue that given the increasingly complicated access to Russian weapons, spare parts, and maintenance services, it is better for the TNI to immediately retire and replace its Russian-made equipment altogether. Yet, this is a very risky path to take given the prominent position that Russian-made weapon systems play in the TNI’s operations. Furthermore, TNI has yet to attain its minimum posture, as defined by the country’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF) modernization plan.

As an illustration, the TNI’s 16 Su-27/30 fighters currently represent around one-third of the Air Force’s front-line combat aircraft, and the 11th Squadron which operates them from the Sultan Hasanuddin Air Base in Makassar is the only fighter squadron that is permanently based outside Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan. Then there is the BMP-3F Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), which forms the backbone of Indonesian Marine Corps amphibious operations, while the Indonesian Army also operates dozens of Russian-made Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters.

Meanwhile, even if the budget was there, major weapon system procurements can take years. Therefore, prematurely retiring Russian-made defense equipment could leave a significant capability gap for the country’s already underequipped armed forces.

The high intensity of the Russia-Ukraine war has also posed several new challenges for Indonesia’s defense. The around-the-clock efforts of many countries to supply Ukraine with various weapons systems have resulted in production backlogs or even the scarcity of some types of weapons and munitions on the international market. For example, the United States’ military assistance to Ukraine has contributed to the delay in the delivery of weapons to Taiwan, even though Taipei is one of Washington’s main partners in its great power competition with Beijing.

Some predict that it will take at least several years for NATO countries (and of course Russia) to replenish their weapon stocks both to meet their own needs and to fulfil export orders. This is not to mention that since the invasion began, many countries, including those in Asia, already announced their intention to considerably increase defense spending. This is a concerning trend because many of the types of weapons and ammunition spent in the Ukraine conflict are also used by TNI or included in the Defense Ministry’s procurement target for the completion of the MEF Program, which had been delayed even before the Russian invasion occurred.

Another thing that the Indonesian Government must learn from the Russia-Ukraine war is the foreign and arms exports policy of other countries. For example, Germany has received constant and harsh criticism, primarily from fellow NATO members, because it refused to provide certain types of weapons to Ukraine, even when these weapons were already in the possession of other countries. Recently, Berlin only agreed to send Ukraine the German-made Leopard Main Battle Tank after getting pressured by most countries supporting Ukraine, and after Poland mentioned publicly that it would bypass German authorization for re-export. It led many countries that acquired defense equipment from Germany to question Berlin’s commitment to supporting them in the future.

The same thing happened with Switzerland, which blocked a number of countries, including Germany and Spain, from sending Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine. Then, last January, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, asked the South Korean government to rethink its current stance on not exporting weapons to Ukraine.

Of course, each nation has the right to decide whether to permit or prohibit the export of munitions and/or weapons to a country that is actively engaged in an armed conflict. This decision is influenced by many variables, including domestic politics, the political nexus between the donor and recipient nations, and the country’s standing or influence in the international community. Even in April 2022, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo clearly stated that because of Indonesia’s constitution and its free-and-active foreign policy principle, Jakarta could not provide military assistance to Ukraine. Nonetheless, the Indonesian government should consider these track records in assessing which foreign partner will be more reliable in assisting TNI’s modernization process, especially if one day Indonesia is also dragged into an armed conflict.

Finally, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine serves as a reminder that the possibility of a protracted conventional war still exists and, given the ferocious geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, might potentially occur close to Indonesia in the future. In addition, the Ukrainian war is also proof that even with hundreds of trillion of rupiah worth of weapons and training assistance from numerous nations, the modernization of the armed forces cannot be done instantly.

What should the government, especially the Defense Ministry and TNI, do to address all the aforementioned problems, which could get worse as the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on?

The most obvious answer is to continue to boost the development of the domestic defense industry, both private and government-owned. Given its limited production capacity, human resources, and technology mastery, in reality, Indonesia still indeed needs foreign assistance to increase its level of defense independence. Therefore, the government must speed up the implementation of Law No. 16/2012 on the Defense Industry, which requires foreign arms manufacturers to provide counter-trade, local content, and/or offset. This commitment enables some of the value of arms import contracts to be reinvested in the country, for instance by requiring foreign suppliers to transfer technologies to local companies and/or use Indonesian-made components. Asking foreign partners to manufacture their products locally in Indonesia in collaboration with local defense firms and their suppliers is the best way of fulfilling these three goals.

Second, to minimize the risk of delays and/or third-country intervention in procuring weapons from abroad as experienced by Ukraine, Indonesia must optimally choose weapons originating from countries that have a large production capacity and independent domestic defense industry. This seems to have been carried out by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto judging from his frequent visits to France and Turkey, during which he not only purchased arms but also made efforts to form long-term strategic partnerships.

Third, the growing backlog in global arms production will ideally compel the Indonesian government to speed up TNI’s modernization and as soon as possible put various arms procurement agreements or contracts into force. Failure to do this would most likely result in a longer waiting period for TNI to receive the weapon systems it needs to protect the nation.

The views expressed in this article are personal.