JAKARTA – Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is taking a long look at second-hand Eurofighter Typhoons on offer by the Austrian Air Force, a procurement that would aim to better check Chinese incursions into Indonesian waters in the South China Sea.
Pricing appears to be the main reason for the former army general’s interest in buying the 15 twin-engine Typhoons, which were acquired by Austria in 2002 amid lingering controversy over their cost-effectiveness and allegations of corruption.
But unlike his predecessors, Prabowo has a more strategic view of what equipment Indonesia needs to boost its frontline air power and also add more guided-missile frigates to a navy facing increasing challenges from China on its northern maritime border.
Moved to Sumatra in 2014 to shorten their combat range, air force fighters have recently been involved in some of Indonesia’s biggest naval maneuvers in years in the western Java Sea and waters around the Natuna archipelago.
The Austrian Defense Ministry announced three years ago that it intended to replace the air superiority fighters by 2020, saying the continued use of the Typhoonsover a 30-year life span would cost US$5 billion, much of it spent on maintenance.
The Typhoons would add a third logistical tail to the Indonesian Air Force, which currently has a frontline fleet of 16 Russian-made multi-role Su-27/30 fighters and three squadrons of US-produced Lockheed Martin F-16s, recently used on air patrols over the South China Sea.
The purchase of an additional squadron of advanced Sukhoi jets is now apparently off the table because of feared American sanctions for buying Russian jets and missiles, a punishment imposed on Moscow for allegedly meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Prabowo has already approached Austrian Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner over the proposed procurement. If the sale goes ahead, it is expected the Typhoons would be upgraded to Tranche 3A standards, giving them both air defense and ground attack roles.
Indonesia would be the first Asian country to operate the Typhoon. More than 500 of the aircraft are currently in service with nine air forces in Europe and the Middle East. The unit price of a new jet is $100 million.
Some analysts see it as a stop-gap acquisition before Indonesia takes planned delivery of the KFX/IFX fighter, which has been under joint development by Korean Aerospace Industries and aircraft manufacturer PT Dirgantara Indonesia since 2010.
The first test flight of the new fighter is scheduled for 2022, with manufacturing likely to begin in 2026. Indonesia expects to buy 48 of the aircraft at an estimated unit cost of $50-60 million.
Before the Typhoon caught his eye, Prabowo had taken a look at the Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter the French developed on their own after dropping out of the Eurofighter program in a dispute with Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany, its other partners.
The minister was close to concluding a deal for 11 new Russian Su-35 interceptors,but sources familiar with the still-born deal say President Joko Widodo intervened because he was worried about Washington’s reaction and the potential impact on US-Indonesian trade.
Indonesia has sought to diversify its arms purchases since the 15-year embargo the US government imposed on Indonesia over its abusive military actions in East Timor, which won its independence in a United Nations-sanctioned and ultimately violent referendum in 1999.
Prabowo does not appear to have been under any US pressure to buy the updated F-16V, the latest variant of the single-engine fighter that has shot down 76 enemy aircraft with the loss of only one since it was introduced in the early 1970s.
But defense analysts are still puzzling over a recent unsolicited decision by the US State Department giving Indonesia the go-ahead to buy eight Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport planes and related equipment for $2 billion.
The July 6 statement, extolling the virtues of the Osprey in supporting amphibious operations and enhancing humanitarian and disaster relief capabilities, came as a surprise because it has never been on Prabowo’s wish list.
Days later, Indonesian Defense Ministry secretary-general Donny Taufanto, a retired air marshal, said there were no plans to buy the Osprey. Sources in the regional defense industry community were equally baffled by the report.
Japan is the only foreign country to order the $72 million V-22, a hugely expensive alternative to Sikorsky’s medium-lift UH-60 Black Hawk, which Indonesia nearly bought but then shelved because of the $21 million cost.
Instead, the government is considering adding to the Indonesian Army’s squadron of 15 Russian Mi-17V5 transport workhorses, which are only a third of the cost of a Black Hawk and can carry a platoon of troops, twice as many as its American competitor.
Defense experts have been critical of Indonesia’s most recent $750 million purchase of eight sophisticated Apache AH-64 attack helicopters. It has also come under fire for buying 100 German Leopard tanks, which are too heavy for most roads and bridges.
Both acquisitions seemed more designed to keep pace with the inventories of neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand than to improve the external defense capabilities of a vast archipelago covering more than 1.9 million square kilometers.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has put a temporary crimp on defense spending, China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea have compelled Indonesia to pay more attention to protecting its maritime frontier.
In a diplomatic note to the United Nations last May, Indonesia said it had no intention of accepting China’s offer of bilateral talks to settle purported overlapping claims of “maritime rights and interests” that have no basis in international law.
Over the past week, Indonesia’s Western Fleet has been conducting the biggest naval fleet exercises in memory in waters around the Natuna Islands, scene of an increasing number of incidents with Chinese Coast Guard vessels in recent years.
The assertion of maritime sovereignty involved 29 warships,19 aircraft and marine landing craft comes a fortnight after the US turned on a massive demonstration of naval power by dispatching two carrier battle groups through the South China Sea.
In a further hardening of American resolve, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US stood with its Southeast Asia allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources,” a statement that appeared to include the Natuna Islands.
Widely tipped to make a second bid for the Indonesian presidency in 2024, Prabowo is blacklisted from the US because of alleged human rights while serving with the Indonesian special forces.
But he has a cordial relationship with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, whom he met at a regional security conference in Bangkok last year. Esper said recently he planned to visit Jakarta, a move that could trigger a reciprocal visit from his Indonesian counterpart.