Francois Hollande inspects an honor guard with President Joko Widodo on March 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Francois Hollande inspects an honor guard with President Joko Widodo on March 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Indonesia’s submarine program has been met with skepticism since Jakarta took the first concrete steps to bolster its underwater military capabilities five years ago: the country’s navy is in large part committed to tackling piracy, illegal fishing and maritime terrorism in coastal shallow waters and is not a conventional naval force on the high seas.

Thus the constraints of geography and the true nature of the security threats that Indonesia faces at sea and from the sea, combined with a limited budget, should prompt Jakarta to invest more in surface ships rather than in submarines.

The industrial cooperation between Indonesian state-owned shipyard PT PAL and French shipbuilder DCNS appears intended to deal with the apparent inconsistencies of the Southeast Asian country’s naval buildup. On March 30, during a visit to Jakarta by French President François Hollande, PT PAL and DCNS signed a memorandum of understanding to extend their collaboration to offer Indonesia’s navy new submarines and, at a later stage, frigates and corvettes.

In particular, the two defense contractors aim to build in Indonesia a multipurpose submarine from the latest generation of DCNS’s Scorpene-class family, which is able to operate in shallow (“green”) and blue waters alike.

DCNS is not new to industrial partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. Most notably, it is cooperating with Australia to support its Future Submarine Program and provide the Royal Australian Navy with 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines. DCNS is also manufacturing six Scorpenes for India in cooperation with a defense company based in Maharashtra, while Delhi plans to buy three more of these submarines, The Hindu newspaper reports. 

Scorpene’s green water capabilities

One of the Scorpene submarine’s main assets is its easy deployment in blue waters and its ability to remain submerged and undetected in deep waters for a long time. In this respect, the French submarine is primarily projected to protect the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of a country, playing a crucial role in deterring potential aggressions.

When asked by Asia Times about the Scorpene’s green-water capacities, DCNS replied that its submarine “is adapted to fight against illicit traffic and piracy thanks to excellent stealth technology, modern sensors and exceptional detection capabilities, as well as to information and communication systems suited to coordinated actions.”

In DCNS’s view, the Scorpene submarine would provide the Indonesian Navy with a consistent solution for anti-piracy missions as it is able “to see without being seen and collect sensitive information to anticipate potential future attacks.” Further, the French defense manufacturer said the Scorpene “can prepare a coordinated action with other operational units like police or civil security, so as to identify a suitable time to act, and deploy special forces.”

Indonesian naval buildup

Under its Minimum Essential Force program, Jakarta projects building up a fleet of 10 to 12 submarines. The Indonesian Navy now has two Cakra-class submarines, a variant of Germany’s Type 209. In 2012, PT PAL and South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding inked an agreement to develop three attack submarines, construction of which is still under way. In addition, Jakarta is trying to develop an unmanned submarine able to navigate at a depth of 150 meters.

Apart from France’s Scorpenes, Jakarta is in talks with Russia to acquire two Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarines, according to recent Russian media reports. It remains to be seen whether the Varshavyanka submarine will be alternative or complementary to the Scorpene in Indonesia’s calculus.

The fact that this type of Russian vessel is principally designed for anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare in coastal waters, however, provides further evidence of Indonesia’s interest in reinforcing its green-water potential.