Editions : January-March 2017

JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Ian Montratama and Yohanes Sulaiman

In a limited cabinet meeting on defense and security issues on July 20, 2016, President Joko Widodo stated that the procurement policy for primary weaponry systems should be based on what all military services needed – not on what they wanted. Joko further stressed seven principles of weaponry system acquirement outside technical and operational aspects, notably the need for transparency; transfer of technology; the need to meet Indonesia’s minimum essential force (MEF) posture by 2024; and government-to-government mechanisms to mitigate corruption, among others.

It could be argued that Joko’s seven principles were commonsensical, in line with Law Number 16/2012 on the defense industry, which emphasizes the transfer of technology from foreign industries to Indonesia’s domestic industries. In other words, nothing new. At the same time, the entire statement could be perceived as a “warning” that the president sensed the weapons procurement policy was not being executed in accordance with the law. He might have thought that the military had been combining what they wanted with what they needed, which potentially leads to corruption in weapons procurement. Therefore, through Joko’s logic of stressing transparency in the weapons procurement process, the government (and the military) could mitigate opportunities for graft and in turn reorient the procurement policy toward its ultimate goal.

And yet, one nagging question hovers in the background: what is Indonesia’s ultimate goal for weapons acquisitions? This goal needs to be clearly defined, based on Indonesia’s strategic interests. Otherwise there is simply no way to determine whether its weapons procurement program is realistic and feasible or a major waste of money, and the “seven principles” will end up simply being rhetorical jargon.

In addition, the procurement of weapons systems should be seen as part of an overall defense diplomacy, with the procurement process taking into consideration Indonesia’s security and foreign policy goals that could leverage the country’s bargaining power in international politics, especially within Southeast Asia. In a sense, Joko’s seven principles are dominated by an internal balancing of objectives that focus solely on increasing military power. These principles, however, will be much more effective should Indonesia’s foreign policy goals be taken into consideration, by crafting bilateral or multilateral ties with foreign partners that will help Indonesia in the case of armed conflict with nations, and vice versa.

The problem is that Indonesia simply does not have clear strategic goals. This essay explores and evaluates Indonesia’s weapons systems procurement in light of the country’s lack of clear strategic goals. We do so by first discussing the relationship between defense diplomacy and weapons procurement, followed by a discussion of the minimum essential force. 

Foreign policy and defense diplomacy

Defense diplomacy is the use of armed forces and defense infrastructure during peacetime as supporting instruments to achieve foreign policy and national defense objectives. Part of Indonesia’s defense diplomacy strategy is improving bilateral and multilateral relationships through defense cooperation, and improving military capabilities to contribute to international peacekeeping missions.

Indonesia is no stranger to using defense diplomacy. Between 2003 and 2008 it undertook 88 defense diplomacy initiatives, 17 of which were aimed at increasing defense capabilities, while 13 were carried out to strengthen the country’s domestic defense industries. There remains an enduring question, however: what are Indonesia’s foreign policy objectives. Even today, the objectives are still unclear and undefined, with many policy practitioners generally falling back on the vague and undefined jargon of “helping to create a global peace” or to have “a thousand friends and zero enemies.”

At the same time, Indonesia’s “free and active” foreign policy doctrine has strayed from its original intent, espoused by Vice President Mohammad Hatta back in 1948, which stressed that Indonesia needed to focus on actively furthering its national interests – including picking alliance partners. Back then, due to domestic political considerations and taking into account that the United States was seen as the most important nation for Indonesia to court, Hatta concluded that the best course of action was to not seek alliances at all, because it would maximize Indonesia’s foreign policy interests while taking into consideration heavy domestic opposition to such alliances.

Decades on, however, Indonesia has stubbornly continued to avoid any alliances in spite of its national interests, notably the rising potential threat of China in the South China Sea. Indonesia’s policy of strict neutrality, especially given its inadequate defense budget, simply does not make much sense. While Indonesia is still respected internationally and engaged by many nations thanks to its strong geopolitical position, our policy makers should be aware that the country’s lack of military hard power will eventually diminish the effectiveness of its soft power. Extensive improvements in the military capabilities of Vietnam, Singapore and Australia will, sooner or later, erode Indonesia’s own bargaining power in the region.

Granted, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made substantial progress with many of its initiatives within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), such as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality in 1971; the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976; the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty in 1995; and the Asean Code of Conduct in 2013. The initiatives have sustained peace and stability in the region. But when push comes to shove, who will guarantee regional peace and stability solely by relying on soft power without taking into account hard military power, or at least strong military cooperation with partners that share Indonesia’s strategic interests?

Therefore, since military alliances – as an example, with the United States or NATO – are simply off the table, it is imperative for Indonesia to strengthen its military power. At the same time, as the Indonesian Armed Forces finds itself short of financial resources, it needs to improve its weapons procurement process. This will provide both bang for the buck and serve as an instrument to increase Indonesia’s bargaining position with rival nations, reflected in the strategic goal of defense diplomacy.

Indonesia’s procurement of the KRI Irian class of naval cruiser in the 1960s, which at the time was the largest warship in Southeast Asia, is a good example of how the procurement of military equipment based on strong geopolitical calculations and clear strategic goals can have a strong impact on defense diplomacy. The ships were purchased from the Soviet Union to strengthen the Indonesian Navy as the country attempted to regain West Irian (today known as Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces) from the Netherlands. From a defense diplomacy point of view, the procurements had two main impacts. First, the destroyers’ superior sea combat capabilities deterred the Dutch naval fleet from challenging Indonesia on the seas. Second, President Soekarno used the KRI Irians as a diplomatic instrument to gain American political support to persuade Australia and the Netherlands to accept Indonesia’s claim over West Irian, by implicitly threatening to align closer with Moscow.

The lesson learned here is that military equipment procurement oriented toward defense diplomacy needs to have multiple considerations, notably the timing of the acquisition, the type of weaponry, the target and how it would fit into Indonesia’s defense diplomacy objectives and increase its bargaining power.

Minimum essential force

Unfortunately, as noted earlier, the biggest problem with Indonesia’s foreign policy goals is simply a lack of clarity and a lack of an overarching strategic goal. As a result, the Indonesian military fills the breach, resulting in an ad hoc focus on what we might call “the threat of the day.”

In general, the Indonesian military is an instrument of the state in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity from threats, both traditional and nontraditional. Specifically, Law Number 34/2003 states that the Indonesian military is an instrument of national defense that (a) serves as a deterrence force against any form of military threat and armed threats from both outside and inside the country against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of the nation; (b) suppresses any form of threat; and (c) restores the state of security disrupted by chaos. The implementation of the above tasks is embodied in war and military operations other than war.

Since the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, dating back to 2004, the Indonesian military’s weapons acquisitions have been determined by the concept of meeting a minimum essential force, based on budget allocations. In essence, the military chooses its equipment only after the government gives the budget estimates. This approach worked well in the short term, especially in the mid-2000s as the country’s focus was on domestic economic problems, ethno-religious conflicts and terrorist attacks.

As the domestic situation stabilized and the economy improved, Indonesia’s strategic interests have in recent years shifted from dealing with internal strife to border conflicts, notably the Natuna Islands and the Ambalat sea bloc. Both are rich in natural resources and close to strategic maritime sea routes in the South China Sea, and Indonesia has territorial disputes over them with China and Malaysia, respectively. In these cases, however, the budget-conscious approach of the minimum essential force is simply untenable. Indonesia needs much more expensive military hardware, through the defense budget, to deal with external threats.

For developed nations with abundant financial resources that face weaker rival states, defense posture can easily be oriented to the strategic goals these nations want to achieve. Indonesia, however, which not only has a limited defense budget and is surrounded by neighbors with better militaries, lacks a grand strategy that identifies its national interests, and the planning and execution of defense acquisitions is in essence a difficult job. It requires extra caution, in accordance with the level of importance and urgency. Many things that the Indonesian military needs are obviously important, but due to limited budgets the military must focus on what it considers as urgent.

But how does Indonesia determine what weapons systems are urgently needed, especially given that its national interests are currently unclear? This situation to some degree shows the paradox of President Joko’s seven principles for procurement policy, notably where he stresses the necessity of the military focusing on what it needs rather than what it wants. The difference between what the Indonesian military needs and wants is based on the level of importance and urgency of each case. Yet, there is simply no way to determine such importance and urgency of without understanding the overarching objectives of Indonesia’s foreign policy.

A threat-based approach

In dealing with this paradox, weapons systems procurements by militaries around the world, including Indonesia’s, are dictated by the kinds of threats a military has faced in the past, and also on projections of future threats. Given this, it is imperative for the Indonesian military to focus on regressive planning – a weapons acquisition plan based on the importance and urgency of threats – to deal effectively with long-term threats.

Since the nature of threat is dynamic, the Indonesian military has to predict the dynamics of future threats and implement regressive planning by constructing its defense posture gradually – but at the same time, still maintaining an effective deterrent power. In planning how to deal with traditional threats, the Indonesian military must extensively review and predict the military developments of its neighbors, especially countries that are geographically close.

Regardless of Indonesia’s relationship with its neighbors, Jakarta must still consider Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and China as potential threats and develop defense plans based on the projection of a future deterrence power that can be constructed toward those nations.

For example, the selection of fighter jets, which was also mentioned by President Joko, should be based on their deterrent effect against the air forces of Singapore (with F-35s), Australia (with F-18 Super Hornets) and China (with J-20s and J-31s). Obviously, this does not mean that Indonesia should be paranoid about its neighbors, which would cause unnecessary trouble and harm its own interests. But it is important for the Indonesian military to have strong deterrent capabilities vis-à-vis neighboring militaries, regardless of how friendly their relationships are today.

In facing nontraditional threats, the Indonesian military must evaluate the dynamics of threats that will emerge in the short, medium and long term. For instance, regarding illegal fishing, it is evident that the Chinese Coast Guard protects Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in Indonesia’s waters. In dealing with Chinese Coast Guard vessels, which are equipped with medium cannons, the Indonesian Navy must have strong surveillance capabilities and the ability to rapidly deploy interceptor vessels that can deter armed foreign coast guard vessels from entering Indonesian waters. A similar approach is needed to fight other threats, notably separatists, terrorists, pirates, smugglers and drug traffickers.

For natural disaster relief operations, special equipment is also needed. Based on the experience of dealing with the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province, heavy-lift helicopters are needed to transport supplies and heavy equipment to isolated locations. Similarly, heavy-lift helicopters are needed to combat forest fires by quickly delivering water to hot spots.

The problem with this approach is that not only can it be very expensive, but due to the haphazard nature of such procurements, it is unclear whether it can actually strengthen Indonesia’s military in the long run or contribute to the country’s defense diplomacy. Granted, this is not the best way to deal with future threats, but short of actually having a coherent national strategic goal, it is the best plan on the table.


Indonesian law requires its Armed Forces to deal with traditional and nontraditional threats, ranging from foreign militaries to armed insurgencies. Indonesia’s weapons procurement program, however, based on the concept of creating a minimum essential force, is no longer suitable. While the concept worked well when Indonesia was facing numerous internal security problems, in the long run the concept will not serve the country’s strategic interests, especially against external threats.

Indonesia’s defense budget is relatively small – less than 1 percent of gross domestic product. As a result, it must be optimized to enhance the country’s deterrence power, but that can only be done after it has properly defined its strategic short-, medium- and long-term interests. Therefore, Indonesia needs an operational objective to clarify its goals in regional and international politics. It needs to take its border disputes more seriously and improve coordination among diplomatic, defense and military officials to package the entire weapons procurement system in such a way as to increase Indonesia’s diplomatic bargaining power.

It is admirable that President Joko is taking Indonesia’s arms procurement seriously by stressing his seven principles, but such principles ring hollow without specifying what Indonesia’s national interests are. The government needs to craft a comprehensive analysis of Indonesia’s strategic interests and goals, and then use this analysis to help the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces leverage the weapons procurement program to provide added value to defense diplomacy – similar to the 1960s.


Ian Montratama is a researcher at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Research in Jakarta.

Yohanes Sulaiman is the institute’s executive director, as well as a lecturer at the University of General Achmad Yani in Bandung, West Java province.

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