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At a Crossroads: Indonesia’s Navy Modernization

27 September 2021


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.


Felix K. Chang
Felix K. Chang is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also the Chief Operating Officer of DecisionQ, a predictive analytics company, and an assistant professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.