Will Indonesia finally make up its mind on its jet fighter purchase?
So far, it has toyed with the Russians, the Austrians, the South Koreans and the United States — will it now do the same with France?
According to media reports, the Southeast Asian country is in negotiations with the French to purchase state-of-the-art Dassault Rafale multirole jets, The War Zone reported.
This after Indonesia showed interest in Austria’s second-hand Eurofighter Typhoon fleet, and initial plans to acquire Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 Flankers.
The Americans, never to be counted out, are in there too with the latest F-16, along with the KF-X next-gen fighter from South Korea.
Meanwhile, the potential sale of 36 Rafales was confirmed by French Minister of Defense Florence Parly, during a TV interview. She noted that the contract signature was still pending, but that the deal was “very well advanced.”
France’s La Tribune financial website had previously reported that talks between Indonesia and France had begun, but mentioned 48 Rafales rather than 36, War Zone reported.
According to this source, Jakarta is eager to “quickly finalize an agreement” on the purchase as part of a wider defense cooperation agreement between the two countries.
The website further stated that “several corroborating sources” had confirmed that the negotiations “are progressing very well,” with Jakarta hoping that the deal could be signed off before the end of the year, War Zone reported.
France doesn’t have a long history of major arms transfers to Indonesia, but in recent years the country’s defense industries have been making more inroads, including the sale of an additional eight Airbus H225M helicopters to the Indonesian Air Force in 2019.
Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto met with Parly in Paris in October to reiterate his interest in the Rafale, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
The current export customers for this type are Egypt, India, and Qatar. In recent months, Greece, too, has unveiled plans to buy 18 of the French jets, War Zone reported.
No doubt, when India recently took possession of its first Rafale jets, tilting the military balance against China in its border conflict, Indonesia took note.
Like other nations in the region, China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea are a cause for concern for Indonesia.
The maritime dispute is exemplified by recent incidents in which Chinese fishing boats accompanied by menacing Chinese Coast Guard vessels have entered waters within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
As well as fishing rights, these waters also include Indonesia’s largest untapped natural gas field, the East Natuna gas field, a key strategic resource.
The Indonesian Air Force’s fighter fleet currently operates around eight survivors from the 12 F-16A/B Block 15OCU fighters delivered from 1989, plus 23 upgraded F-16C/Ds, War Zone reported.
It also flies different versions of the Russian-made Flanker, in the form of five single-seat Su-27SKs and a pair of two-seat Su-30MKs, along with nine two-seat Su-30MK2s.
It had been expected that Jakarta would buy additional Flankers, in the form of the latest multi-role, single-seat Su-35 version, and a $1.1-billion deal was announced in July 2017.
However, sources say Washington applied pressure on Jakarta to shelve the deal with Moscow, threatening sanctions in response, War Zone reported.
A more ambitious plan for the Indonesian industry to jointly build the KF-X new-generation fighter with South Korea has also run into trouble.
Indonesia remains involved in the KF-X, with PT Dirgantara Indonesia working as an industry partner alongside Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI). This 20% share of the project was hoped to translate into Indonesian orders for 50 of the jets.
The first prototype of the KF-X is now taking shape in South Korea but, last August, Indonesia failed to pay its second instalment to secure its stake, War Zone reported.
Moreover, the KF-X is not expected to enter production until sometime between 2026 and 2028, meaning a new fighter is likely still needed in the interim.
On the US front, Lockheed Martin has offered Indonesia more F-16s, including the “cutting edge” F-16 Block 70/72 variant, as well as pilot training — a tantalizing offer.
In addition to the potential Rafale sale, Austria’s defense minister had also confirmed earlier this year that she planned to begin talks to sell the country’s 15 Typhoons to Indonesia.
While these second-hand aircraft could well provide a lower-cost solution (Rafale jet fighters are US$80 million apiece), such a deal would also require a political consensus in Austria, as well as approval from the four Eurofighter partner nations — Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom — as well as the US.
However, experts say the Typhoons offered by Austria currently lack the kind of air-to-ground capability that Indonesia might require to counter domestic terrorist groups.