Analysts give Indonesian presidential frontrunner mixed reviews for job as defense chief

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Analysts give Indonesian presidential frontrunner mixed reviews for job as defense chief Indonesia's Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (third from left) gestures as he poses for a photograph with his counterparts from other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, during a meeting in Jakarta, Nov. 15, 2023.
. [Dita Alangkara/Pool via Reuters]

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who leads the polls for next month’s presidential vote, received a mixed report card from experts for his job leading the country’s defense and security sectors, with a few missteps and some essential modernization of the arsenal. 

His performance as defense czar of Southeast Asia’s largest country will be one of the subjects discussed in the second presidential debate Sunday by the two other hopefuls, as the candidates are set to expound on their vision for Indonesia’s national security.

The Defense Ministry has faced difficulties in fulfilling the minimum essential forces (MEF) target for the military, mainly due to limited funds, said Khairul Fahmi, an expert from the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies in Jakarta.

“However, Prabowo has demonstrated his seriousness and vision by following a master plan and a business plan for the MEF program,” Khairul said.

MEF defines the basic level of defense capabilities that Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago, needs to protect its sovereignty and interests. 

In November, the government increased its defense budget by 20% next year – to U.S. $25 billion from $20.7 billion – most of which will be used to procure major weapon systems from abroad.

Since taking office in 2019, Prabowo, a former army general, has crisscrossed the globe, traveling to China, France, Russia, Turkey and the United States, seeking to buy warplanes, ships, tanks and other weapons. 

Under his stewardship, the Defense Ministry has also sought to acquire new military hardware including patrol boats and submarines as well as surveillance and territorial defense capabilities including radars, drones and other detection devices.

“It is still too soon to call it a success, but it is a good start,” Khairul said.

Still, it is unlikely the 100% minimum essential forces goal by 2024 would be achieved, while the nation’s maritime and air defense is even now insufficient, said Beni Sukadis, a military analyst from Marapi Consulting, a think-tank.

“There has to be a breakthrough in buying defense equipment that matches the current threats, such as fish theft and territorial violations by Chinese and other vessels,” Beni told BenarNews.

Qatar’s used Mirage 2000-5 fighter-jets

Meanwhile, Ganjar Pranowo, one of Prabowo’s two rivals in the Feb. 14 general election, has said that at Sunday’s debate he would reiterate his criticism of a controversial deal signed last June to spend millions of dollars buying used military aircraft.

“We cannot claim to have a strong defense while buying used aircraft,” local media quoted Ganjar as saying. 

This deal is what analysts called a misstep that was not in line with the priority needs of the armed forces.

A Qatar Emiri Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000-5 fighter jet takes off as part of a Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn mission in Souda Bay, Greece, March 25, 2011. [Paul Farley/U.S. Navy Photo/Handout via Reuters]

But this week, Prabowo spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak told a TV talk show that the defense and finance ministries had decided to postpone the June 2023 decision to buy 12 used Mirage 2000-5 jets from Qatar for U.S. $734.5 million, because of fiscal constraints. 

“To fill the gap in air defense during the waiting period, we decided to retrofit our old fighter-jets, and this is the best option available at the moment,” quoted Dahnil as saying on Thursday.

Retrofitting involves adding new or modified parts to a product that didn’t exist when it was manufactured. However, back in June, Sukamta, a member of a parliamentary defense affairs commission, said he feared the second-hand warplanes would be too costly to maintain, with even spare parts difficult to source.

One analyst said the acquisition of the jets from Qatar, which were offered to Indonesia as a grant in 2009, had been rejected by then-Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono. 

“I don’t really know if the staff at the Defense Ministry is aware of this,” Broto Wardoyo, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.

Prabowo had earlier defended the decision, saying the Mirage jets had 15-20 years of service left and that they were in high demand.

The other presidential hopeful, former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan, would aim to procure more effective and efficient weapons systems, rather than just large-scale ones, if elected, a member of his campaign team told local media on Wednesday.

Diplomatic misstep

As defense minister, Prabowo has been a vocal advocate of his country’s non-aligned stance amid a new Cold War and regional competition between rival superpowers.

“We respect the United States, China and other countries,” Prabowo said in September, echoing the foreign policy doctrine that has guided the world’s fourth most populous country since its independence.

“Indonesia’s position is very clear: We are non-aligned.”

Presidential candidates (from right) Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo pose after the first presidential election debate at the General Elections Commission (KPU) office in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

U.S.-China competition for primacy in Southeast Asia and tensions related to the disputed South China Sea have led to a few other nations in the region adopting a similar stance.

While Indonesia is not a territorial claimant in the South China Sea, its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) overlaps Beijing’s claims in the waterway. And bilateral diplomatic tensions have arisen in recent years with Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships encroaching on Indonesia’s EEZ. 

The U.S. and China don’t see eye to eye in their response to Russia’s military action in Ukraine either, and Indonesia has not taken sides in the conflict, until, that is, Prabowo suggested an ill-considered plan at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense meeting in Singapore last June.

He provoked a backlash at home and abroad for his plan to end the war in Ukraine, after he suggested creating a demilitarized zone and letting people in “disputed” areas decide their fate through a United Nations referendum.

Prabowo is currently leading in most opinion polls, followed by Ganjar and Anies. Jokowi is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

The Defense Ministry touted several achievements under Prabowo’s leadership.

Among them were creating a military reserve, improving military education institutions and meeting 63% of the minimum essential force goal, the ministry said in a statement in response to a BenarNews request for comment.

The ministry also said it had bought defense equipment, such as frigate warships, submarine rescue vehicles, Rafale fighter jets, Airbus A-400M transport aircraft and C-J 30J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft.

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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