Indonesia has moved a step closer to buying Rafale jet fighters from France. Photo: WikiCommons

Once discovered standing before a family mirror pretending to be Charles de Gaulle, French-speaking Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto appears to have settled on France and its multi-role Dassault Rafale jet fighter as the future backbone of Indonesia’s frontline air defense force.

But within a day of his February 10 announcement that Indonesia would buy an initial six twin-seat Rafales, part of an eventual order for 42 of the 4.5-generation jets, the US State Department broke a prolonged silence by approving the US$13.9 billion potential sale of the rival Boeing F-15ID.

The Rafale has the inside running because the $8.1 billion deal is far more advanced – and also because any F-15 sale will still have to be approved by the US Congress and may still come with possible restrictions on state-of-the-art avionics and weapons systems. 

Coincidence or not, the F-15s have been in the final approval stage for the past two months. “The issue was not the transfer of technology,” says one source familiar with the talks. “It was never an issue whether to give the F-15s to Indonesia. It will happen.”

Indonesia will be the first East Asian country to acquire the twin-engine, delta-wing Rafale, which is already in service with the French air force and navy, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India.

Up until now, France has mainly provided Indonesia with a variety of light armored vehicles and artillery pieces as Jakarta has sought to diversify its suppliers – a lesson learned from the 15-year US military embargo in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Prabowo says the purchase is one of four agreements he signed in Jakarta with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly. The others cover the purchase of two Scorpene submarines, Thales Alenia military satellites, land weapons production and maintenance co-operation.

The US package involves 36 aircraft, inclusive of 87 spare engines, advanced avionics, training and technical support. But in both cases, the modernization program depends on the availability of funding at a time when Indonesia is still emerging from a pandemic-induced recession.

Two US F-15 Eagle aircraft armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and AIM-120 advanced medium range air-to-air missiles. Photo: US Department of Defense

Financing commitment

A variety of sources say Jakarta has a commitment from the UAE to provide a large chunk of financing for the US$25 billion program, built around a Minimum Essential Force (MEF) master plan devised under the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. 

Analysts note that despite Prabowo’s ambitions for upgrading the air force and navy, Indonesia’s $9.3 billion defense budget remains at only 5% of overall government expenditure and 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) – the second lowest in Southeast Asia.

Singapore is the region’s biggest military spender at $11.5 billion, or 3.2% of GDP, followed by Indonesia, Vietnam ($6.2 billion, or 2.3%), the Philippines ($4.3 billion, or 1.9%), Malaysia ($3.9 billion, or 1.1%), Thailand ($2.9 billion, or 1.5%), Myanmar ($2.2 billion, or 2.9%), Cambodia ($525 million, or 2.4%) and Laos ($28 million, or 0.2%.) 

Finance Ministry documents show that $3 billion of Indonesia’s 2022 defense budget has been allocated for modernization projects; media reports say the initial French deal is worth $6.56 billion, of which $1.1 billion is earmarked for aircraft procurement.

The six Rafales are expected to be stationed at Madiun’s Iswahyudi Air Base in Central Java, now home to a squadron each of General Dynamics F-16 interceptors and South Korean KAI T-50 jet trainers.

Altogether, Indonesia’s frontline fleet comprises 32 F-16s and 16 Russian Su-27 and Su-30 multi-role jets, which are also based in Pekanbaru, Sumatra, and Makassar, South Sulawesi, both in range of its politically-sensitive northern maritime border.

But analysts say the current number of air defense fighters is inadequate for an archipelago the size of Indonesia, which crosses three time zones, stretches more than 5,200 kilometers from east to west and lies astride the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The F-15ID is the latest variant of the F-15EX Eagle II that has already been sold to Saudi Arabia as the F-15SA and to Qatar as the F-15Q and features a range of capability enhancements over earlier models of a plane that first went into service with the US Air Force in 1976.

Although there are few details, the announcement does say the F-15ID comes with the same AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) now fitted to the US Air Force’s F-15EX, suggesting it will be the most advanced model if Congress gives the go-ahead.

The US-made F-15 comes in a variety of configurations, like this F-15E Strike Eagle. Photo: WikiCommons

The South Korean option

Another option is South Korea’s partly-stealthy KF-21 Boramae, a look-alike F-15 multi-role fighter Indonesia has had a minority share in developing since 2010, though it has recently fallen behind in payments. The first prototype was rolled out last year and the plane will go into full-scale production in 2026.  

The F-15 deal was announced as Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit to Australia as a show of US determination not to allow China a free rein in the Western Pacific and particularly in the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as its own backyard.

“The proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of an important regional partner that is a force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia-Pacific,” the State Department said in a statement.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to pay a Covid-delayed visit to Jakarta in early March, during which he is expected to discuss the F-15 deal, along with Indonesia’s surprise plan to buy 14 Bell 412EPX helicopters, instead of the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk.

Defense experts have been critical of Indonesia for forking out $500 million for eight Boeing Apache AH-64 gunships, worth $500 million, when the Blackhawk would have made more sense as a utility workhorse with a proven record in both army and natural disaster relief operations.

Many of the sophisticated Apaches are grounded, fueling the argument that they and the equally controversial purchase of 103 Leopard 2 battle tanks were more about matching the neighbors than filling any identifiable strategic role. 

A Blackhawk sale is still believed to be on the table, with some sources describing the Bell acquisition as an interim measure, adding to an Indonesian army inventory that already includes 52 older-model 412s, better known as the UH-1 Huey.

The $21 million Blackhawk is twice the cost of the latest Bell and also has twice the lift capability. But observers note that the army has only recently taken delivery of nine Bell 412EPX, which are well suited for high-altitude conditions in Papua’s central mountain chain.

The $275 million price tag has ruled out any imminent purchase of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, but in the meantime, Indonesia plans to increase the production of the prop-driven CN-235 to fill the gap in ocean surveillance.

Built by state-run aircraft manufacturer PT Dirgantara, the CN-235 has an operational range of 3,885 kilometers, significantly longer than the jet-powered Poseidon, and is now in service with 28 air forces around the world. 

Indonesia’s air force and navy operate 13 CN-235MPA variants, whose ability to loiter offers favorable comparisons with the venerable, four-engine P-3C Orion patrol aircraft which can remain on station for more than 12 hours.