The offer of two squadrons of used F-16 jet fighters ― gratis ― from the United States seems too good to be true. With its aging defense weaponry systems in desperate need of upgrading, the Indonesian Military (TNI) signaled last week it had accepted the offer under a U.S. grant.
The ball is back in the U.S. court to decide whether to proceed with the deal or not.
But wait. Nothing is as free as it seems. When making the announcement, the TNI did not quite explain the various strings that come with the offer. Indonesia still has to fork out a considerable sum of money to retrofit and install weapons on the 24 F-16 fighters. By one insider’s calculation, the amount would come close to the cost of buying six brand-new (and newer model) F-16s, which the TNI had originally planned to buy.
The choice for the TNI boils down to having 24 secondhand fighters which would probably be good until 2025 or 2030, or get 18 fewer planes with the plan of buying more down the road when budgets permit. The Air Force says it needs 200 planes of various types and sizes in its fleet to protect the country’s vast airspace.
Another string attached is the reality that the weapons will have to be procured from U.S. defense contractors. With the U.S. government still banned by Congress from selling lethal weapons to Indonesia, one can only wonder what sort of weapons the TNI will be able to install on these F-16s.
The offer should also be seen as part of the U.S. lobby, even if only half-heartedly, to stop Indonesia from buying military hardware from other countries.
Because of the military sales embargo imposed by Congress, Indonesia over the past decade has looked to Russia for some of its air defense systems, marked by the procurement of Sukhoi jet fighters.
Many senior TNI officers are more familiar with U.S. weapons, but circumstances, most particularly the U.S. arms embargo, dictated that the military has had to turn to other countries to seek ways of upgrading its weaponry systems. As Indonesia begins to increase its spending on procuring weapons, the U.S. has reason to worry.
Some analysts have proclaimed that Southeast Asian countries today are locked in an arms race.
Given the spending spree in recent years, Southeast Asia is considered one of the fastest growing markets for global arms traders.
Others linked these buildups to growing concerns in the region over the rise of China and what this might mean to their strategic security environments. In their defense, these countries say they are only catching up, having severely cut their defense spending during the Asian financial crisis more than a decade ago.
As far as Indonesia is concerned, the current “arms buildup” is part of its effort to upgrade the TNI to meet the minimum essential force. If there is an arms race in the region, Indonesia may as well throw in the towel now.
Jakarta does not have the resources to compete, not even if it wanted to. When compared with countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, Indonesia’s defense posture will pale, especially when taking into account the large land, water and airspace it needs to protect.
Fortunately, Indonesia does not see any immediate external threat, allowing it some leeway to keep defense spending low and release money for other more needy sectors, such as education, health care, poverty alleviation and the construction of economic infrastructure.
There is now an acknowledgment that human security is just as important, if not more, to the national security of a country. Still, Indonesia cannot neglect its defense sector for too long before compromising its ability to defend the country from potential security threats, both the traditional and the non-traditional versions. In recent years, the defense sector has seen the second largest growth in spending after education, and for a very good reason.
The challenge Indonesia faces now is how to allocate the rising defense budget as efficiently as possible. Sharing more information about the options available with the public and the House of Representatives would certainly help the TNI and the government in making those important decisions.
(The Jakarta Post, Feb. 18)