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Indonesian Defense Chief Visits Russia amid Efforts to Modernize Military

Ronna Nirmala
Jakarta
2020-01-29
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Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto attends a meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts in Bangkok, Nov. 17, 2019.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto attends a meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts in Bangkok, Nov. 17, 2019.
AP

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto visited Russia on Wednesday as part of his “defense diplomacy” that has taken him to seven other countries as his country’s president pushes to modernize its military arsenal.

Prabowo held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu and was to meet with officials from the federal military-technical cooperation service, defense export agency Rosoboronexport, and weapons maker Kalashnikov Group, the Russian embassy in Jakarta said in a statement.

“We are ready to improve relations between Russia and Indonesia in a more progressive way, including in the field of military and military-technical cooperation,” the embassy quoted Shoygu as telling Prabowo in Moscow.

Shoygu called Prabowo’s visit a milestone ahead of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Indonesian defense chief responded by saying that Indonesia considered Russia “as one of the most powerful countries in the world.”

“Russia, or before that the Soviet Union, always helped Indonesia in times of need, has always been by our side,” Prabowo said, according to the statement.

On Monday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that he wanted Indonesia’s military to have the most modern and sophisticated weaponry.

“I want the development of our weapons system to adopt the latest technology in which everything is digitalized,” Jokowi told reporters in Jakarta.

“It requires a leap forward, but I’m sure that our state-owned enterprises in partnership with foreign companies have what it takes,” he said.

Prabowo’s spokesman, Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, said the minister was likely to discuss the possibility of procuring Russian missiles.

“Many things [are on the agenda]. But one that he has in mind is missiles,” Dahnil told reporters last week. He did not elaborate.

Dahnil said Prabowo’s Russia visit would be the last stop in his “defense diplomacy” trips, after which Jokowi would decide whether to follow up on his minister’s recommendations on weapons procurement.

Prabowo, a former general who has faced accusations of human rights abuses when he was the commander of the Indonesian army’s special forces (Kopassus), has also visited Malaysia, Turkey, China, Japan, Philippines, France and Germany since being appointed defense minister in October. Prabowo ran against Jokowi in both the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.

His travel to Russia came four months after the Indonesian parliament passed the government’s 2020 budget of U.S. $180.3 billion, including allocations of 131.2 trillion rupiah ($9.6 billion) for the Defense Ministry, a 20 percent increase from last year’s defense spending plan.

Trip to France

Prabowo’s Jan. 13 meeting in Paris with French counterpart Florence Parly attracted controversy on social media after La Tribune, a financial newspaper, reported that he was interested in buying 48 Dassault Rafale fighter jets, four submarines and two corvette warships from France.

Deputy Defense Minister Wahyu Trenggono, however, told reporters there was no plan for now to purchase French-made weapons.

“All we did was have a look. No plan yet,” Wahyu said. Local media also reported that Prabowo had played down the French newspaper’s story.

“That’s probably their [the French government’s] wish,” the Jakarta Post quoted Prabowo as saying last week, as he conceded that there was an urgency for Indonesia to modernize its weaponry systems.

Apparently responding to the controversy, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati urged the defense ministry to be prudent in its weapons spending.

“The ministry’s budget comes from taxpayers, as well as domestic and foreign loans,” Sri Mulyani wrote on Instragram last week.

She urged the ministry and the military to sit together and design an efficient acquisition plan.

“We don’t want changes in high-ranking officials at the Ministry of Defense or the TNI (military) to result in changes in planning for purchases of equipment after the budget has been decided, and therefore we have to start again from scratch,” Sri Mulyani said.

Barter deal for Russian jets

Meanwhile, under a deal signed in 2018, Indonesia has agreed to purchase 11 Russian-made Sukhoi SU-35s for $1.14 billion, in exchange for Russia having to buy Indonesian commodities, such as rubber.

Indonesian Air Marshal Yuyu Sutisna was quoted by the state-owned news agency Antara in October as saying that Jakarta was still pursuing plans to acquire the Russian-made fighter jets in the next five years, although that push has struggled with delays.

Indonesian negotiators had expressed concerns over an American law signed by President Donald Trump in August 2017 that could apply sanctions against entities doing business with Russia, according to defensenews.com.

But while Indonesia seeks to diversify its weapons procurement sources, officials still consider Washington as Jakarta’s leading source of defense hardware, analysts say.

Yuyu Sutisna said during a visit at an airbase in Riau Province that Jakarta would submit a request to purchase two squadrons of F-16 fighter jets this year as part of the plan to upgrade the nation’s weaponry.

“Insya Allah [God willing], we will buy two squadrons in the next strategic plan 2020-2024. We will purchase the newest type of Block 72 Viper,” he said, without elaborating on exactly how many planes would be purchased. A squadron in an air force or naval aviation is usually a unit composed of 12 to 24 aircraft usually of the same type.

“If we have them, we will be among those having sophisticated F-16s,” he said.

In total, the country has 33 F-16 Fighting Falcons that have, until now, been one of the main weapons of the Indonesian Air Force, Antara said.

Last month, Prabowo and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo agreed to move ahead with a joint project to develop a next-generation fighter jet, even though Indonesia has failed to pay $255 million in installments to Seoul before the agreed September deadline.

Under the scheme, Indonesia will shoulder 20 percent of the development cost of the $7.36-billion KF-X project, but it “failed to pay the full 301 billion won ($255 million) it was supposed to pay by the end of September, according to data from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration,” the state-funded South Korean news agency Yonhap said.

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