Indonesian Navy Academy cadets parade aboard the deck of the KRI Banda Aceh-593 warship at the Eastern Fleet Command in Surabaya in a file photo. Photo: Antara / Twitter

JAKARTA – Indonesia is embarking on a program to modernize its navy and build up a more effective deterrent to confront future incursions by Chinese ships into the 200-nautical-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) along its northern maritime border.

Maritime  Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan has often stressed the need for what he calls “ocean-going” surface combatants to protect fishery resources from intruding Chinese and other foreign trawlers in the North Natuna Sea.

But the brazen seven-week incursion by a Chinese survey ship and two armed coast guard cutters near a gas exploration rig 20 kilometers inside Indonesian waters last year has upped the stakes and left the Indonesians scratching their heads over what comes next.

Indonesia’s two home-built Sigma-class and five 1960s-era Van Speijk-class frigates have a limited range of 6,000-9,000 kilometers, only slightly more than most of the navy’s core fleet of 24 corvettes, 14 of which were acquired from the former East German navy in 1993 and are nearing retirement.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has concluded a deal for two British Arrowhead 140 frigates, which will be built at state-run PT PAL‘s Surabaya shipyard, and also signed a contract for six new Italian FREMM multi-role frigates and two upgraded Italian Navy Maestrale-class light frigates.

Prabowo was a surprise inclusion in President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet after losing to the incumbent in the 2019 presidential race. But the former army general has impressed with his grasp of strategic issues and his prioritizing a stronger navy and air force.

The minister is also considering the purchase of two or three squadrons of Boeing F-15EX Eagle II and Dassault Rafale fighter jets to augment a front-line fleet made up of three squadrons of Lockheed Martin F16s and 16 Russian Sukhoi Su-27/30s bought during an extended 15-year American arms embargo.

A Dassault Rafale jet goes through its paces at the Aero India air show in 2017. Photo: Wikipedia

Air force commander Air Chief Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo recently confirmed Indonesia had made the long-rumored decision to drop the planned acquisition of Su-35 multi-role fighters because of feared US economic sanctions.

Leaked Defense Ministry documents suggest Indonesia will rely heavily on foreign loans to fund an ambitious US$125 billion modernization program over the next 25 years. “Many of our defense systems are aging, so replacing them is urgent,” Prabowo said last year, stressing the need to respond to what he called the “ever-changing environment.”

Neither he nor other senior security officials have said much about China’s aggressive activities in the North Natuna Sea, which are at puzzling variance with an economic relationship that has propelled Indonesia into a new era of industrialization. 

Maritime watchers have seen little Chinese activity over the past two months, but further north the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and USS Essex amphibious assault ship last week raised Beijing’s ire once again by skirting Chinese installations in the disputed Spratly Islands. 

Based on the hull of the Danish-designed Iver Huitfeld-class frigate and manufactured under license from British defense contractor Babcock International, the 5,100-tonne Arrowhead 140 has a range of 17,000 kilometers and a top speed of 30 knots.

It is armed with Sea Ceptor missiles, guided by an advanced air and surface surveillance system, and carries either an AugustaWestland Wildcat or Sikorsky Seahawk helicopter capable of delivering anti-ship missiles and lightweight torpedoes.

The Royal Navy is buying five similar Type 31 frigates, but Babcock says the baseline Arrowhead 140 design can be configured to meet a broad range of operational requirements specifically tailored for Indonesian operations.

The $720 million deal is a triumph for Jakarta as it looks to benefit from a transfer of technology, not only to build its own military hardware in the future, but to contribute to the economic benefits of developing the country’s shipbuilding industry.

Founded during president Suharto’s rule in 1980, PAL has already built corvettes, missile-armed fast attack craft and amphibious warfare vessels, in addition to two strategic sealift vessels for the Philippines Navy.

Earlier, Trieste-based Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri announced it will build six FREMM frigates for Indonesia for $4.5 billion, apart from meeting more than 50 orders for the same vessel from the US, France, Italy, Egypt and Morocco.

A FREMM frigate in a file photo. Image: Wikipedia

The 6,000-tonne Bergamini-class variant, first introduced into service in 2012, has a range of 12,000 kilometers and is equipped with a 127 mm main gun and Otomat MK2 anti-ship missiles capable of engaging targets at a distance of 180 kilometers.

Under the arrangement, Fincantieri will also acquire and modernize the two 3,000-tonne Maestrale-class frigates, which have a range of 11,000 kilometers and are primarily designed for anti-submarine warfare.

The new frigates are destined to be built in Fincantieri shipyards, but there has been little progress on the deal in the past seven months with a lack of finance still appearing to be a major obstacle.

The same applies to a separate deal with Japan, which had a sales team ensconced in Jakarta for much of last year seeking to sell the Indonesians eight stealthy Mogami-class multi-mission frigates at an overall cost of $3.6 billion.

Under a provisional plan, Mitsubishi and Mitsui were to deliver four of the 5,000-tonne vessels, beginning in late 2023, and for the other four to be built by PAL in what would have been the biggest-ever arms deal between the two countries.

Indonesia’s last naval acquisitions were three 1,700-tonne F2000 corvettes, originally built by Briain’s BAE Systems for the Royal Brunei Navy and sold to Indonesia in 2014 after the sultanate refused to take delivery because they did not meet specifications.  

Last December, Vancouver-based OSI Maritime Systems announced it had been contracted to provide a new integrated navigation and tactical system for the mid-life modernization of the KRI Usman Harun.

The Usman Harun and its sister ship, the KRI John Lie, were among the navy ships that shadowed the Chinese flotilla during the nearly two months it spent inside Indonesia’s EEZ on an intensive seabed mapping exercise.

A China Coast Guard ship passes near an Indonesian warship in a July 2019 file photo. Photo: Indonesian Navy’s Western Region Fleet Command

The incursion was seen as an attempt by China to enforce its so-called nine-dash line of national sovereignty, which despite extending across most of the South China Sea has no legal basis under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS).

In a sign Beijing may be starting to realize the counter-productive effect of its aggressive actions against Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a forum in Manila this week that China will not use its strength to “bully” its neighbors.

“Stressing only one side’s claims and imposing one’s will on the other is not a proper way for neighbors to treat each other and it goes against the oriental philosophy of how people should get along with each other,” he said.