Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts At a Crossroads: Indonesia’s Navy Modernization
At a Crossroads: Indonesia’s Navy Modernization

At a Crossroads: Indonesia’s Navy Modernization

The sea has long shaped Indonesia’s strategic thinking. Its leaders have traditionally regarded the waterways running through their country’s 17,500 islands as both the sinew that binds those islands together as a country and the arteries that link it to the rest of the world.[1] All of the strategic concepts that Indonesia has articulated over the decades—its “Archipelagic Vision,” “Indonesian Maritime Continent,” and others—have in some way been linked to the country’s archipelagic geography and its position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s contemporary vision for his country as the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” has been no different.

Yet, Indonesia has never built a navy strong enough to adequately defend its vast waterways (or “archipelagic sea lanes” as Indonesian strategists call them). It is a well-known shortcoming. In fact, one of the main pillars of Jokowi’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum” vision calls for improving Indonesia’s maritime forces—both to keep the country’s “archipelagic sea lanes” open and to protect its maritime borders, straits, and exclusive economic zones. Though the Indonesian navy has proven up to the task of countering encroachment by the country’s Southeast Asian neighbors, it has been unable to curb Chinese intrusions into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. In the latest episode, a Chinese ship interfered with Indonesian offshore oil drilling activities in August 2021. Unfortunately for Indonesia, its past efforts to strengthen its navy have been more often typified by thrift than new combat capacity—leading one to wonder whether its current efforts will be enough to counter future intrusions.

Maritime Challenges

The trouble that the Indonesian navy has had in securing resources to properly modernize has been somewhat puzzling given the sea’s stated centrality to Indonesia’s identity and the service’s prominent role in the country’s early history. In 1961, when Indonesian leaders sought to take control of Western New Guinea, Jakarta relied on its navy to conduct the amphibious operation that wrested the territory from the Netherlands. Indonesia’s fledging navy had to not only ferry troops and supplies to the contested area, but also keep the Dutch naval forces there at bay. And then, in 1975, when Jakarta decided to occupy East Timor, it again turned to its navy to support that campaign.

Since then, the Indonesian navy’s mission has largely been focused on defending Indonesia’s maritime borders. During the 2000s, it was involved in a maritime standoff between Indonesia and Malaysia over offshore oil rights in the Ambalat region of the Celebes Sea.[2] And today, it is involved in contending with China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for the navy, Jakarta downplayed the maritime dispute between it and Beijing for years. Eventually, however, Chinese intrusions into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone became too frequent to ignore. Indonesian leaders tried to signal their displeasure by traveling to Natuna Island, Indonesia’s South China Sea outpost. Jokowi visited the island twice (in 2016 and 2020). Jakarta also tried other forms of signaling, from live-fire naval exercises to blowing up Chinese fishing boats that it had detained. So far, nothing has worked. Plus, in response, Beijing started to dispatch a coast guard vessel to escort Chinese fishing boats into Indonesian-claimed waters in late 2019.

While Indonesia’s diplomats may have been taken aback, its military leaders were none too surprised. They have long worried about their weak ability to deter great powers from intruding into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zones, not to mention its strategic areas, like the Lombok, Malacca, and Sunda Straits. Its leaders were among the first in Southeast Asia to publicly voice concerns about the security implications of China’s rise in the South China Sea. Accordingly, they were among the first in the region to push for a concerted military modernization program in 2009, a time when Beijing had just started its island-building efforts in the Spratly Islands. Indonesia sought to create a “minimum essential force” that would guarantee its “immediate strategic defense interests” by 2024. Progress on naval modernization has been slow, despite defense budget increases (in constant terms) in eight of the last 12 years. In 2020, that progress was further slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which diverted government funds to meet public-health priorities.

Modernization Plans

But even before its current modernization efforts began, the Indonesian navy laid out the force structure that it thought it needed to properly defend the country’s waterways in its “Green-Water Navy” blueprint. By 2024, it envisioned a 274-ship fleet that would be divided into a “striking force” of 110 ships, a “patrol force” of 66 ships, and a “support force” of 98 ships. Notably, the force was to include a dozen diesel-electric attack submarines.[3] Early on, skeptics questioned whether Indonesia would have the means to acquire and maintain such a large maritime force.[4] Today, with three years to go before 2024, the navy seems unlikely to reach its goal. In terms of submarines alone, the navy added only three submarines to its fleet during the 2010s, giving it a total of four—well short of its target number. In part, that is because one of its two long-serving Type 209/1300 diesel-electric attack submarines, the KRI Nanggala, was lost in an accident near the Lombok Strait in April 2021.

That accident revived concerns about the condition of the Indonesian navy. During the late 2000s, reports had already surfaced that as much as 40-50 percent of the ships in the navy were inoperable at any given time.[5] When the Nanggala sank, the submarine was over 40 years old. The Indonesian navy’s five largest frigates, the Ahmad Yani-class, are even older, built in the late 1960s. But rather than replace them with modern platforms, Jakarta has repeatedly opted to extend their service lives with relatively low-cost upgrades. During their last upgrade, Ahmad Yani-class frigates received bolt-on Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missiles and only short-range Mistral surface-to-air missiles. That was unsurprising, given Indonesia’s history of economizing on its naval procurement. Jakarta twice chose to cheaply buy used warships over procuring new ones designed to meet its navy’s operational requirements. In the early 1990s, Jakarta bought the bulk of former East Germany’s discarded fleet of Cold War-era warships. Then, in 2013, it purchased three nearly decade-old corvettes (now called the Bung Tomo-class) that Brunei cast off after a contractual dispute with the shipbuilder.

Certainly, the size of Indonesia’s navy is not out of line with the size of its economy. Japan, another large archipelagic country, maintains a fleet of 22 submarines and 50 large surface combatants (i.e., aircraft carriers, destroyers, and frigates) with an economy of $5 trillion in 2020. That suggests that Indonesia, with an economy of $1.2 trillion, should be able to support a fleet of at least five submarines and 12 large surface combatants—a force structure similar to its current order of battle. But the combat capabilities of the warships in Japan’s fleet far exceed those in Indonesia’s. That might have begun to change with the sinking of the Nanggala. Three months after the submarine’s loss, Jakarta announced that it would purchase some $125 billion in new arms over the next quarter century, a hefty sum considering that its entire government budget totaled $185 billion in 2021.

Modernization Needs

There is little question that Indonesia needs to recapitalize much of its navy. It needs more powerful combat platforms, like the two Danish-built Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates that are currently on order. The frigates offer well-integrated sensor and weapon systems and large missile magazines that make them capable as well as survivable on the modern naval battlefield. In a sign that Jakarta may have turned a corner on its past naval procurement practices, six of the eight frigates that it ordered from Italy in June 2021 will be new. While two ships are soon-to-be retired 1980s-era Maestrale-class frigates that will need to be modernized before their transfer, the remaining six will be new-build FREMM multi-mission frigates, which were designed from the keel up with integrated sensor and weapon systems. Once the ships are fully operational, the navy will likely use its Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates primarily for air defense, owing to their magazines of medium-range SM2 surface-to-air missiles, and its FREMM frigates in anti-submarine and anti-mine roles.

For surface warfare, the Indonesian navy can count on not only its frigates, but also its locally built Clurit-class (KCR-40) and Sampari-class (KCR-60) fast attack craft. Although scores were originally planned as part of the navy’s “minimum essential force,” only twelve have been commissioned thus far. Many more are needed. All are currently armed with Chinese-designed C-705 anti-ship missiles, but future versions might be equipped with MM40 Exocet anti-ship missiles. Despite their limited sea endurance, fast attack craft can be very useful in the littoral waters of the Celebes and South China Seas due to their speed and small radar cross-sections, which reduce their detectability.

Submarines, of course, are even harder to detect. That no doubt was a key factor in the Indonesian navy’s decision to acquire three Nagapasa-class diesel-electric attack submarines (a variant of the Chang Bogo-class, which itself is derived from Germany’s Type 209) from South Korea during the 2010s. And the navy clearly has plans for more submarines, especially after it broke ground on a new submarine base on Natuna Island in April 2021. Indeed, another three Nagapasa-class boats had been expected to have immediately followed the first trio, but it now appears that Jakarta is still mulling the final number and source of its follow-on submarines. Protracted government negotiations with different shipbuilders could delay the acquisition of new submarines past the end of Indonesia’s current naval modernization horizon in 2024.

Ends and Means

Indonesians often view their country as a maritime crossroads, but their navy is at a crossroads of its own. In contrast to its plodding military modernization for much of the last two decades, Jakarta now seems to have summoned the will and financial resources to accelerate that process. For even as Indonesia’s current military modernization program winds down, it is already looking forward to its next one. Of course, whether Jakarta fully follows through with its naval modernization efforts remains to be seen, but it has the opportunity to create a navy that is far better capable of defending the “archipelagic sea lanes” that its leaders have long cited as important to its national ambitions.

The maritime challenges from China and the resumption of great power competition in Southeast Asia will surely demand more of the Indonesian navy in the years ahead. Even if the Indonesian navy ends up reaching its 274-ship goal, it will still be pressed to protect all of Indonesia’s vast waterways. To meet the expectations of Indonesia’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum,” the navy will require not only its traditional share of Indonesia’s military modernization budget, but a bigger slice of it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

[1] Dickry Rizanny Nurdiansyah, “Indonesia’s Maritime Vision from Time to Time,” The Horizon, No. 3 (2020), pp. 18-24; Leonard C. Sebastian, Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, and I. Made Andi Arsana, “Beyond the Archipelagic Outlook: The Law of the Sea, Maritime Security and the Great Powers,” in Indonesia’s Ascent: Power, Leadership, and the Regional Order, eds. Christopher B. Roberts, Ahmad D. Habir, and Leonard C. Sebastian (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 308-334.

[2] Stephen C. Druce and Efri Yoni Baikoeni, “Circumventing Conflict: The Indonesia–Malaysia Ambalat Block Dispute,” in Contemporary Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Towards a New ASEAN Way of Conflict Management, ed. Mikio Oishi (Singapore: Springer, 2016), pp. 137-156.

[3] Geoffery Till, “Indonesia as a growing maritime power: possible implications for Australia,” Sea Power Centre – Australia Soundings, May 2015, p. 8.

[4] Collin Swee Lean Koh, “What next for the Indonesian’s navy? Challenges and prospects for attaining the minimum essential force by 2024,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2015), pp. 432-462.

[5] Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, “Indonesia’s Naval Modernisation: A Sea Change?” RSIS Commentaries, Jan. 27, 2012, p. 2; and Victor Huang, “Building Maritime Security in Southeast Asia: Outsiders Not Welcome?” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Winter 2008), p. 91.