'Second-Hand' Boost for Indonesia's Air Defence
(Source: The Straits Times; published Oct. 4, 2011)
Indonesian Air Force officers will soon be shopping in the Arizona desert, picking out two squadrons of mothballed F-16C/D fighter jets from America's aircraft "boneyard", to beef up their country's paper-thin air defences.

The 30 aircraft will come free of charge. But six of them will be cannibalised for their parts. The Indonesians are expected to spend US$400 million to US$600 million equipping the rest with advanced avionics and weaponry and buying 28 Pratt and Whitney engines.

Settling for second-hand fighters, formerly in service with the US Air Force and Air National Guard, is probably Indonesia's best option at this point, given its limited defence budget, which continues to linger at just over 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

By comparison, Singapore's defence spending for this year to next year amounts to 4.5 per cent of GDP. Malaysia forks out 2.5 per cent.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently signed off on US$11 billion in baseline defence spending between last year and 2014 to modernise and maintain the military's primary defence systems. Two-thirds of the money is earmarked for new equipment.

With the F-16 acquisition approval process still wending its way through the United States Congress, Indonesia's Parliament is putting the brakes on the deal until it satisfies itself that the Defence Ministry is not going back to relying on the US as a single supplier of military hardware.

Indonesia has adopted a diversification policy since the 1992-2005 US arms embargo. This was triggered by violent events in Timor Leste, which left the air force without a genuine deterrent capability and unable to respond effectively to the 2004 Aceh tsunami disaster.

Critics question why greater priority is not being given to maritime reconnaissance aircraft, ocean-going patrol craft and transport planes, but protecting a nation's air space is a source of pride for a military - and a president - concerned about national sovereignty.

Both of Indonesia's closest neighbours have more front-line muscle, with Singapore boasting six squadrons of advanced F-15SGs and F-16C/Ds and Malaysia equipped with a squadron of F/A-18s and a squadron each of Russian-built Su-30s and MiG-29s.

Indonesia's sparse inventory includes 10 ageing F-16 A/Bs, only six of which are believed to be operational, and a similar number of Su-27SKMs and Su-30MKs acquired over the past seven years to fill a glaring hole in its air defence umbrella.

The air force intends to refurbish the existing F-16s and purchase six more of the Russian fighters, but analysts dismiss as fanciful Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro's statement last year that it will eventually buy at least 180 of the planes.

While the twin-engine Russian fighters, with their 3,000km combat range, make tactical sense for an archipelagic state, they are costly to maintain and their engine life is reputedly only about half that of an F-16.

The Indonesians are expected to do most of their shopping at Arizona's Davis-Monthan air force base, where the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group maintains 4,200 aircraft, some dating back to World War II.

The desert's high altitude and arid conditions allow rows of buttoned-up military aircraft at the sprawling 1,050ha facility to be stored outside for long periods without serious risk of corrosion.

Delivery of the newly refurbished F-16s will likely begin in 2014 and take about three years to complete. By that time, Indonesia is also expected to have acquired the 14 extra radars needed to provide an effective early-warning screen across the country.
In the longer term, Indonesia and South Korea have agreed to jointly develop the KF-X, a new supersonic multi-role fighter with stealth capabilities and a range double that of the F-16, which is scheduled to enter service with the two air forces in 2025.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed last year, Indonesia will buy 50 of the single-seat, twin-engine fighters and contribute to 20 per cent of the US$4.1 billion development cost.

Aircraft manufacturer Indonesian Aerospace, which began life as IPTN under then President Suharto's New Order regime, anticipates playing a role in the development phase and perhaps in the joint manufacturing.

Just how long it will take to get the military up to speed on modernisation can be seen in the slow progress being made in adding to the air force's fleet of 10 serviceable C-130 cargo planes, essential to moving troops to trouble spots and supplies to areas hit by the country's frequent natural disasters.

Indonesia needs as many as 14 extra planes, with indications that the Royal Australian Air Force will offer to turn over some of the 12 C-130Hs remaining in its inventory when they are retired from service in 2013.

Clearly, the US embargo took a damaging toll on the old Indonesian workhorses. The first C-130 sent to an Oklahoma facility for refurbishment a year ago was so riddled with corrosion that repairing the frame alone ate up the entire budget.


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