A Russian Air Force Su-35S at the MAKS Airshow 2015. Photo: Wikipedia

Worldwide observers have been analyzing the motives behind Jakarta’s decision to shift its plans to obtain 4++ generation fighters in favor of Boeing’s F-15EX or Dassault’s Rafale instead of Sukhoi’s Su-35. Alleged financial difficulties seem to be not the only reasons for such a maneuver.

On December 22, Air Chief Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo confessed to the media “with a heavy heart” the abandonment of a preliminary deal signed with Russia in 2018 for 11 aircraft.

The Indonesian military chose the Su-35 (Flanker-E) as a main multipurpose heavyweight fighter at the Dubai Airshow in 2015, but a final contract was never signed, so the planes remained unproduced, fortunately for the Russian side.

Jakarta was expected to pay US$1.14 billion, but the most recent terms were cryptic, as the Russian government is reluctant to declassify all details about foreign military contracts.

Although Russia’s ambassador to Indonesia Lyudmila Vorobyova said Moscow had not received any word of a cancelation via diplomatic channels, she admitted the deal was unlikely to go ahead.

In July at the MAKS 2021 airshow in Moscow, a spokeswoman for the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation warned that the Indonesian contract had attracted a lot of attention from competitors. She blamed “third-country agents” for pressing Jakarta to withdraw from the Sukhoi project.

Earlier, in March 2019 at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) defense expo in Malaysia, the head of Russia’s military cooperation agency, Mikhail Petukhov, reported on the continuation of dialogue on the fighter jets with Indonesia despite the “political environment and sanctions blackmail.” 

The Su-35s were presumed to be delivered to the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) by the end of 2020 on an offset payment basis (including a share of commodities such as coffee and palm oil), with the first jet being delivered even as early as 2019.

In July 2019, the Indonesian ambassador to Russia at the time, Mohamad Wahid Supriyadi, remarked that the complexity of the trade scheme in which both government and private entities were involved could delay the contract. Nevertheless, in 2020 Supriyadi confirmed that his country would not walk away from the deal, as Indonesia had the right to purchase defense equipment from whomever it chose.

However, in March 2020 Bloomberg, citing a source in the Donald Trump administration, reported that Washington had forced Jakarta to refuse to purchase Su-35s as doing so would go against the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

That act was passed by the US Congress in 2017 with the aim of compelling governments to refrain from military cooperation with Iran, North Korea and Russia, and later China. In 2018, then-secretary of defense James Mattis asked Congress to grant a waiver to India, Indonesia and Vietnam allowing deals with Russia without any risk of sanctions, but times have changed since.

Financial constraints

For the last two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia has faced budget deficits of around 6% of GDP, and is banking on a slow recovery of the national economy in 2022. In August, Jakarta announced a 2022 draft budget for military expenditures taking into account economic constraints. The new budget introduced a 2% decline from 2021 but is still much higher than recommended by the Ministry of Finance.

Financing of accelerated procurement of defense equipment and improving military infrastructure for accomplishing Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force strategy remains robust. Considering this, the monetary impediments don’t look decisive enough, especially within the context of Boeing’s proposal to provide the first F-15EX to the Indonesian military in 2027.

The cost of eight American jets is assumed to be at least $750 million ($87.7 million plus presale service for each), compared with $1.14 billion for the Sukhoi fighters. Estimations on the cost of French Rafales are close to $100 million per unit based on a recent offer to Croatia. The Indonesian military referenced more flexible financial terms with Paris than those with Moscow, but that may only mean more coffee and palm oil for a longer term – no data were provided.

Moreover, recalling the Indonesian parliament abandoning the idea of buying 15 retired Eurofighter Typhoon from Austria, the argument for a more standardized aviation fleet seems reasonable. At that time, a House Commission member criticized the purchase of similar-class fighters from different manufacturers as inefficient because of higher expenses for repair, spare parts and training. 

TNI-AU already has 16 Su-27 and Su-30 jets and has accumulated extensive operational and maintenance experience since 2003. Besides this, there are also 33 American F-16s, 23 British Hawk-200s and 14 Korean T-50s among combat aircraft in active service, so adding one more type is a lot for a rather small air force.

US interference

Notably, the US has already intervened into Indonesia’s defense partnerships with other countries. In 2018, it was reported that a KF-X fighter jet program between South Korea and Indonesia was in tatters. A spokesman for Jakarta’s Defense Ministry hinted that the US had introduced critical restrictions for the project, inducing its termination.

Specifications and performance of heavyweight fighters deserve thorough attention. The F-15EX Advanced Eagle has been criticized for not having stealth technologies, which makes it easily detectable and highly vulnerable. Its impressive diverse payload capacity would be useless while operating against capable adversaries like Russian- or Chinese-designed fighters and air defense batteries.

Cost-efficiency parameters look doubtful as well. Even though the basic F-15 has walked a road of glory since the 1970s, its advanced successor is still a dark horse. The French Rafale might be more potent as a multirole aerial platform for a wide range of weapons. It has rich combat and service experience, so all the flaws are well known.

Nonetheless, Russian experts have cited the South African Ultimate Defense website, which simulated a scramble between a Rafale and Su-35 with almost no chance for the former to prevail. The Russian jet benefited from its ability to detect and fire first.

Away from the political context, the Su-35 is extremely effective against airborne targets, able to shoot down any existing jet including fifth-generation ones. The F-15EX is fine for weakly secured surface targets if provided with total aerial superiority. The Rafale looks modest in all these roles for the same price.

The compromise option is to procure both Rafales and Su-35s to complement each other, scrapping all used F-16s, as Egypt has done. But how to mitigate American wrath in this case?

Follow Andrey Gubin on Twitter @AndreyGubin4

Andrey Gubin

Andrey Gubin is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.