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Where Indonesia’s Presidential Candidates Stand on National Defense

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Where Indonesia’s Presidential Candidates Stand on National Defense

All three have pledged to expand and modernize the Indonesian National Armed Forces, though it remains to be seen how they would put the idea into practice.

Where Indonesia’s Presidential Candidates Stand on National Defense

Indonesian Soldiers conduct live hoist training during Exercise Super Garuda Shield 22 at Baturaja, Indonesia on August 1, 2022.

Credit: U.S. Army photo by Capt. Kyle Abraham, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade

With Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election on the horizon, the three pairs of presidential and vice presidential candidates have become increasingly active in promoting their visions for Indonesia’s development, including in the defense sector. In general, all candidates share the same view that the government should significantly modernize the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI), strengthen border and cyber defense, advance the domestic defense industry, and improve soldiers’ welfare.

At the same time, they acknowledge the rising geopolitical tension in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the South China Sea, and East Asia, and the impacts that these may have on Indonesia. Nevertheless, each candidate has brought some unique perspectives and emphasized different aspects to make the country more secure.

In their election manifestos, Anies Baswedan and his running mate, Muhaiman “Cak Imin” Iskandar, specifically underlined the importance of Indonesia having a blue water navy and an “automated air force.” In parallel, they want to increase women’s representation in the TNI. Moreover, when he recently elaborated on his foreign policy and national defense visions, Anies said that he wants the country’s arms procurement policy to place more emphasis on the quality of the system or platform, rather than just its quantity.

Additionally, the former Jakarta governor said that he wants to standardize TNI’s weapon system to simplify maintenance. Interestingly, Anies said that he does not want Indonesia to join minilateral security groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, as non-alignment is one of the cornerstones of the country’s foreign policy and doing so might drastically alter it. All three candidates have pledged to maintain Indonesia’s non-aligned foreign policy, including by not joining geopolitical/military alliances.

Meanwhile, the Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD pairing has adopted the “5.0 Defense System” concept, which emphasizes an anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategy, strategic power projection capabilities, and improvement in the country’s cyber defense aspect, including the formation of a Cyber Force as TNI’s new fourth service. In addition, Ganjar has promised to significantly increase the maritime defense budget, citing Indonesia’s vast maritime territory and archipelagic nature, and the fact that other countries in Asia have substantially increased their own defense budgets.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and his vice presidential candidate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, have pledged to gradually increase the overall defense budget and strengthen the military reserve component. They also introduced the “optimum essential force” concept, which is likely to be the continuation of TNI’s current Minimum Essential Force modernization program, which will end in 2024.

Considering his track record during the last four years as the minister of defense, it is difficult to envision Prabowo abandoning his realist stance and tendency to aim for advanced major weapon systems when it comes to arms procurement policy. For the record, Prabowo often quotes Thucydides’ saying that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” and the classic Latin proverb si vis pacem, para bellum – “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

The big question is how the candidates will put all of the above ideas into action once they are elected. One thing is certain, the annual defense budget, which typically only accounts for 0.6-0.8 percent of Indonesia’s GDP – rather than the minimum 1.5 percent target flagged in Indonesia’s National Medium-Term Development Plan and other government documents – must be significantly increased. The lack of funds hinders the TNI’s modernization, weapon systems’ readiness level, and soldiers’ well-being, and is also one of the primary factors impeding the advancement of Indonesia’s defense industry and its goal of achieving economies of scale, given the monopsonic nature of the defense market.

The difficulty for the winning candidate is not only the state’s financial situation but also how to assure the public that a spike in defense spending is necessary. Ensuring greater efficacy and transparency in the defense sector would definitely help. The elected president will face extra hurdles in securing the necessary funding if he leads the country without a pro-government majority in the House of Representatives.

The new president must also evaluate existing defense-related bureaucracy and regulations. For instance, in May, TNI spokesperson, RADM Julius Widjojono, revealed the organization’s desire to be more independent in selecting the weapon systems that it will operate because the existing bureaucracy tends to subject military procurement programs to many “political decisions” that ignore the operational requirements and technical specifications requested by the armed forces. Thus, TNI wants the authority to submit its budget requests directly to the Ministry of Finance instead of having to go through the Ministry of Defense. While some may doubt the urgency of such drastic bureaucratic changes, it is still valuable to keep the general idea of streamlining the procurement process on the table.

Another task the next president must focus on is how to improve defense-related strategic partnerships with other countries. Indonesia’s strict and long-standing non-aligned foreign policy doctrine is frequently perceived as one of the obstacles for both TNI and local defense companies in accessing cutting-edge technologies. In relation to the objective of building power projection capabilities, developing cooperation with other countries to allow Indonesian military task forces to use their ports and airbases would be essential.

Likewise, it is imperative to maintain a trusting relationship with foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Besides the previously mentioned lack of guaranteed economies of scale, Jakarta’s history of flip-flopping arms procurement policy, especially when there are transfers of power, could discourage foreign arms manufacturers from putting forward their best proposals. This is crucial to address because, taking into account the presidential candidates’ promises to advance the domestic defense industry, Indonesia will need to secure more technology transfer, offset, local production, and marketing collaborations from foreign arms manufacturers.

Foreign governments and OEMs will carefully look at whether the new administration will fulfill the commitments made by the previous government. For example, Indonesia’s inability to pay its cost share obligation in the KF-21 Boramae jet fighter joint development with South Korea gave rise to the idea among some South Korean politicians that the government should kick Indonesia out of the project. A memorandum of understanding signed in 2022 with France on the local production of two Scorpene-class submarines in Surabaya, East Java, has yet to materialize even though Paris recently updated its proposal to better suit the Indonesian Navy’s operational needs.

Apart from the two aforementioned strategic projects, there are F-15EX fighters, A330 MRTT, Blackhawk helicopters, FREMM frigates, and other foreign-made platforms that Jakarta has promised to buy, but all of these procurements have progressed slowly or even come to a complete halt.

Ironically, this has occurred at a time when there is a pressing need for Jakarta to expedite its military modernization agenda, with the security environment deteriorating and the global arms production backlog worsening. If not taken seriously, TNI personnel will have to wait longer for the much-needed advanced systems that they require.

Furthermore, the next administration must continue to uphold the initiative set by President Joko Widodo to turn defense spending into defense investment by prioritizing arms imports that come with profitable and real technology transfers, or even involve local production. This is the best way to raise the level of independence of the domestic defense industry. Simultaneously, placing greater emphasis on dual-use technologies during technology transfer negotiations with foreign parties is important because, if properly utilized, such technologies will expand the long-term economic benefits of an arms deal, which will ultimately help the new administration justify increased defense spending.

All things considered, if they are sincere about their campaign pledges, “business as usual” in the defense sector is not an option for whoever emerges victorious on February 14. Ideally, in the coming weeks, we will see all three presidential and vice presidential pairs explain their respective policies in more detail. Yet, their elaboration may not meet the detailed expectations of those working within the sector, as historically national defense is not the most concerning issue for Indonesian voters.

The views expressed in this article are personal.