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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 119. Indonesia's Defence Dilemma

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As President Prabowo Subianto prepares to enter the presidency, the Indonesian military stands at a crucial juncture, navigating both traditional and emerging defence challenges. With Prabowo's extensive military background and his previous five years at the helm of the armed forces, this term is particularly poised to potentially reshape strategies around procurement, international agreements, and even the core tenets of the Indonesian military itself. This week, we delve into the evolving dynamics within the Indonesian military as it grapples with modernisation and regional security pressures, and examine the potential shifts and tough decisions likely to fall onto his desk during the next five years. So why is this term likely the most important for the military? What do Prabowo's purchases and policy shifts tell us about his future policies, and will Indonesia finally take its place as a significant military power within Southeast Asia? We ask our panel of experts:




PART I: Javelins for Java - (02:03)

with John Blaxland

- Dir of the North America Liason Office - Prof at the Intellegence Studies at SDSC - Fmr Chief Intellegence Officer at the Australian HQ Joint Operations Command

  1. Historical Context of Foreign Policy: Indonesia's historical context reveals a pattern of non-alignment shaped by its early experiences in the Cold War. Initially leaning towards the communist bloc, notably with China and the Soviet Union during Sukarno's presidency, Indonesia shifted towards a more Western alignment post-1965 coup but never fully committed to any major power bloc. This pattern has influenced its contemporary defense and security strategies, maintaining a cautious balance between major global powers.

  2. Strategic Military Positioning: The Indonesian military has evolved through significant political upheavals, including the anti-communist purges post-1965, which shaped its role as a central force in maintaining national unity. Under Suharto's regime, the military was heavily embedded in the nation's institutions, a legacy that continues to influence its structure and doctrine. The strategic use of the military to maintain internal stability remains a key element of Indonesia's defense policy.

  3. Modern Military Challenges and Procurement Strategy: Despite having one of the world’s largest military forces, Indonesia's defense budget is relatively low compared to its GDP. This has impacted its ability to modernize and maintain a robust defense posture, particularly in maritime domains where it faces increasing pressure from Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Indonesia’s diverse and dispersed procurement strategy highlights its intent to avoid reliance on any single foreign power, reflecting a broader strategy of maintaining strategic autonomy.

  4. Economic and Security Dynamics with China: Indonesia's relationship with China is complex, characterized by significant economic ties and simultaneous security tensions, especially concerning disputes in the South China Sea. Investments like the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail exemplify China's influence in Indonesian infrastructure, which in turn shapes Indonesia's strategic responses and alignments in regional security matters.

  5. Future Defense Outlook Under New Leadership: The anticipated leadership under Prabowo Subianto suggests a potential shift towards a more proactive defense posture, with plans to increase the military budget and modernize the armed forces. This shift could redefine Indonesia's defense strategies, focusing more on enhancing its capability to defend its interests, particularly in maritime security zones, and possibly adjusting its non-aligned stance in response to regional pressures and internal security needs.

PART II: Armoured Achipeligo - (18:27)

with Natalie Sambhi

- Exec Dir. of Verve Research - Snr Researcher at the Asia Society - Scholar at the SCDC

  1. Historical Role and Current Focus of the Indonesian Military: Historically, the Indonesian military has primarily focused on internal security, reflecting its origins in guerrilla warfare during the struggle for independence against the Dutch. This internal focus has continued into the contemporary era, emphasizing the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The military has also been pivotal in responding to internal crises and natural disasters due to Indonesia's geographic and environmental vulnerabilities.

  2. Shift Towards Modernization and External Defense Capabilities: Recent developments indicate a strategic shift in the Indonesian military from an internally focused force to one capable of regional power projection. This is evident from significant acquisitions such as F-16s, SU-27s, SU-30s, French Rafales, advanced anti-air systems, frigates, and South Korean submarines. These assets enhance Indonesia's ability to project power beyond its immediate borders, potentially as far as the Spratly Islands.

  3. Reform of Command Structures: Indonesia is reforming its military command structures to better integrate its Army, Navy, and Air Force capabilities across the archipelago. The creation of three joint territorial defense commands aims to facilitate a more coordinated and rapid response to external threats, reflecting a growing recognition of the need for integrated external defense strategies, especially given regional tensions in areas like the South China Sea.

  4. Battalion-Level Command Focus and Financial Autonomy: The Indonesian military's unique structure emphasizes battalion-level commands, which are small, flexible, and can operate independently. This structure is suitable for Indonesia's dispersed archipelago but has led to financial autonomy at the battalion level, requiring commanders to engage in economic activities to supplement their units' budgets. This system has implications for both operational effectiveness and military governance.

  5. Challenges and Future Directions Under New Leadership: With the incoming administration, led by a former defense minister with deep military ties, Indonesia may see further emphasis on military modernization. However, the diverse and complex procurement strategy, which involves sourcing from numerous international suppliers, presents challenges in logistics and sustainment. The future success of these military policies will likely depend on broader national progress in infrastructure, health, and education, which could allow for a gradual shift away from the military's traditional roles in social services.

PART III: Deciding Which Fire to Fight - (44:05)

with Collin Koh

- Snr Fellow at RSIS - Renowed analyst on Indo-Pacific Naval Affairs - Instructor for the Singaporean Armed Forces

  1. Continued Focus on Internal Security and Non-Traditional Threats: Despite efforts to professionalize and modernize, the Indonesian military's primary focus remains on internal security, addressing non-traditional threats such as socioeconomic disparities, natural disasters, and pandemics. This internal focus shapes its defense posture, which is largely oriented towards maintaining domestic stability rather than external military engagements.

  2. Challenges with Defense Spending and Modernization: Indonesia's defense spending is capped at approximately 1% of its GDP, significantly limiting its ability to modernize and expand its military capabilities. The Indonesian defense strategy contemplates increasing spending by potentially issuing bonds or obtaining loans, which could funnel capital into the domestic defense industry. This industry, while capable of producing small arms and light to medium armored vehicles, lacks the capacity for heavier and more advanced military equipment.

  3. Capabilities of the Domestic Arms Industry: The Indonesian domestic arms industry has achieved self-sufficiency in certain areas but remains reliant on foreign technology and expertise for more complex systems, such as jet fighters and blue-water naval assets. This dependency is a critical vulnerability, especially if Indonesia aims to undertake prolonged military operations or enhance its blue-water naval capabilities.

  4. Structural Reforms and Inter-Service Rivalries: The Indonesian military faces significant internal challenges, including inter-service rivalries and bureaucratic inefficiencies, which complicate defense procurement and strategy implementation. These issues are exacerbated by overlapping responsibilities among various security agencies, leading to inefficient resource allocation and potential redundancies in capabilities and missions.

  5. Strategic Focus on Maritime Security and Territorial Integrity: With increasing tensions in the South China Sea and concerns over sovereignty, Indonesia is compelled to enhance its military presence, particularly around the Natuna Islands. This effort is part of a broader strategy to assert control over its extensive maritime zones and address potential threats from foreign fishing and military activities. The strategic focus on maritime security is crucial for Indonesia, given its geographic and economic significance in the region.

Indonesia's Defence Dilemma (Released April 15th)



I: Out of Business and On Budget: the Challenge of Military Financing in Indonesia

- By Alexis Rieffel

II: The Road

- By John Martinkus

III: Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia

- By Ben Bland


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This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Charles Scholl, Michael McLendon, Travis and Stéphane Palardy


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