Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (R) and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (L) attend a signing ceremony at the two-plus-two Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting between Japan and Indonesia at the Iikura Guesthouse of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, March 30, 2021. Photo: David Mareuil/Pool/AFP

JAKARTA – Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is considering the purchase of eight stealthy Mogami-class multi-mission frigates as part of a plan to beef up the navy’s long-range patrol capabilities and strengthen the country’s strategic defense relationship with Japan.

If the purchase is completed, it would represent the biggest-ever arms deal between the two nations, significantly at a time the Biden administration seeks to build an alliance of like-minded nations to contain China’s maritime ambitions.

Prabowo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi were in Tokyo last week for the first two-plus-two ministers meeting since 2015 as Indonesia quietly tries to counterbalance China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the southern reaches of the South China Sea.

Referring only to the transfer of fisheries surveillance vessels, Prabowo and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi signed an agreement on the transfer of military equipment and technology, one of the prerequisites Jakarta insists on in most new defense deals.

Government sources say the provisional plan calls for Japan to deliver four of the 3,900-ton frigates, beginning in late 2023 or early 2024, and for the remaining four to be built at state-run PT PAL’s Surabaya shipyard.

Indonesia had previously considered an order for six Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates under a transfer-of-technology deal initially worth $720 million, but the sources indicate that Prabowo’s geopolitical thinking lies behind the switch to Japan.

Motegi told reporters at the end of the visit that Jakarta and Tokyo were worried about the situation in the South China Sea. “Both countries shared similar concerns about the continued and strengthened unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force,” he said.

Marsudi said the Indo-Pacific can only be a region of peace and prosperity “if cooperation is continuously pursued and when every country respects and implements international laws,” a pointed reference to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that China often breaches.

The JS Kumano Mogami-class multi-mission frigate was launched in Japan on November 19, 2020. Photo: JMSDF

Unlike many of his predecessors, Prabowo is wisely focusing on the navy and air force for new military procurements and less on the army, often regarded as the senior service because of its historic role in Indonesia’s struggle for independence.

Although he is a retired special forces general, the Western-educated minister refuses to be guided by what the neighbors have in their inventories and more on what Indonesia needs as part of an overall strategic plan that heeds potential external threats.

Indonesia has been paying greater attention to its maritime borders since  2016 when a Chinese Coast Guard ship intruded deep into Indonesian waters to seize back a trawler that had been detained by a lightly-armed Indonesian fisheries patrol boat.

Since then it has improved military installations on the largest of the Natuna islands and dispatched more patrol vessels into the North Natuna Sea where China claims to have traditional fishing rights inside Indonesia’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ).

The navy and the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) also have access to off-the-shelf satellite tracking systems, augmented by an information and intelligence network that ranges from their own fishing boat crews to a small fleet of maritime reconnaissance aircraft and newly-acquired unmanned drones.

But it has been clear that the navy needs a bigger class of warship to act as a deterrent against China’s heavily-armed Coast Guard fleet, particularly after Beijing’s passage of a new law allowing its vessels to fire on vessels intruding into waters it claims as its own.

The first of the stealthy Mogami-class frigates, with a sticker price of US$450 million, is currently being built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force at shipyards in Nagasaki and Tamano.

Equipped with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, Type 12 torpedoes and a submarine-sniffing towed array sonar, the Mogami has an operating range of 18,000 kilometers, more than twice that of the Indonesian navy’s existing blue water fleet of frigates and corvettes.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (C) visits an Indonesian Air Force Base in Natuna, Indonesia on February 5, 2020. Photo: Muhammad Fahmi Dolli/Anadolu Agency via AFP

How much Prabowo can fulfill his modernization program will depend on the strength of Indonesia’s post-pandemic economic recovery between now and 2024, when he is widely expected to make his third and last bid for the presidency.

“There has been very little discussion where the money is coming from,” says Australian military analyst Bob Lowry, who has written books on the Indonesian armed forces. “I don’t think Jokowi (President Joko Widodo) will give him a lot more of the funding he needs.” 

Indonesia is also close to signing a contract for up to 20 US-made Sikorsky Blackhawk UH-60 utility helicopters. Well-placed sources say Prabowo has also finally settled on Boeing’s new F-15EX multi-role fighter over the French-made Dassault Rafale.

Prabowo had initially hoped to acquire the Lockheed’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but was persuaded to accept the latest version of the F-15, which only now is entering service with the US Air Force to fill a gap left by cutbacks in the F-22 Raptor program.

The $1.7 trillion F-35 program is also in trouble, with a congressional committee recently learning of years of cost overruns and serious operational challenges such as pilots finding it difficult to maintain supersonic speed and also to retain control when flying at more than a 20-degree angle.

Packing more powerful twin engines, updated cockpit systems and sensors, data fusion capabilities and the ability to carry 29,500 pounds of ordnance over  2,200 kilometers, the F-15EX has a reputed 20,000-hour lifespan and will cost half as much as the F-35 to operate.

Keen to keep Indonesia as a customer, Lockheed Martin sustainment operations director Mike Kelly told the Katadata news portal this week that the company was willing to “offer anything” if the air force bought the latest F-16 Viper to add to the three squadrons of earlier model F-16s already in its inventory.

But with an eye firmly on the future — and the troubled fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 seemingly off the board – Prabowo has remained insistent on an advanced fourth-generation aircraft with superior avionics as Indonesia’s new frontline fighter.

A US F-15EX stops at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, March 11, 2021. Photo: Samuel King Jr/US Air Force

Prabowo is believed to have rejected the proposed purchase of the Boeing MV-22 Osprey, the vertical take-off and landing aircraft pushed by army chief of staff General Andika Perkasa, because of its $71.3 million price tag and high maintenance bill.

Indonesian defense officials may have learned a lesson from the controversial $700 million purchase of eight AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, which are as equally difficult to maintain and have been rarely seen in public since their initial delivery in 2017.

The $21 million Blackhawk and also possibly the twin-rotor CH-47D Chinook workhorse have always been seen as a better buy for the Indonesian military given its need for moving troops and equipment and, perhaps more importantly, providing disaster relief.

Indonesia also needs more maritime reconnaissance aircraft,   but Boeing’s sophisticated $275 million P-8 Poseidon, 12 of which are in service with the Royal Australian Air Force, appears far beyond Indonesia’s reach.

Naval analysts say adding more home-built CN-235s to its current fleet of six patrol planes, with its 1,000 nautical mile range and ability to loiter for long periods, is a cost-effective way of improving its coverage of Indonesia’s vast archipelagic seas.