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Indonesia Is Building A Massive New Air Force

June 14, 2018

Stock image of Su-35S flown by Russian Air Force. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of its Minimum Essential Force (MEF) doctrine Indonesia’s defense ministry are now carrying out a broad modernization for the TNI’s air arm. The goal is to close the material and numerical gap that has hampered the Indonesian air force or Angkatan Udara (AU) for decades.

The new benchmarks are far from modest. A report from Antara News on June 8 revealed the air force expects to complete its modernization by 2024, with more than 200 new fixed wing aircraft in service by then. This is a sure sign Indonesia’s military is preparing to lead the ASEAN within the next decade.

The AU can already look forward to its brand new Su-35’s that will arrive before the decade’s end. An initial batch of 11 were ordered in 2017 with another five to be added in the near future. The total of 16 Su-35’s represents a single squadron. This month Antara News cited Air Force Chief of Staff Marshal Yuyu Sutisna who explained the scope and scale of future acquisitions. According to Sutisna eight squadrons of fighter jets will be ready by 2024. Each squadron is comprised of 16 aircraft, totaling 128 airframes.

Another six squadrons are to be raised for transport aircraft. Sutisna revealed these are medium and heavy models imported from the world’s largest aerospace firms, although he didn’t specify which is preferred by the AU there are just three serious contenders in the heavy transport niche. Indonesia can choose either the proven Ilyushin 76, the new Airbus A400M, or the US’ trusted C-17 Globemaster.

There’s no indication yet about the kind of multirole fighters the AU settles for in the long-term. Its current inventory is divided between a handful of Su-27’s and 30 F-16C/D’s that are slated for upgrades. The AU also deploys converted Hawk trainers and Brazilian Super Tucano for ground attack roles. Going by its recent choice of Su-35’s, Russian Sukhois may form the AU’s backbone in decades to come. Unless, of course, competing airframes from Western Europe or the US win over the defense ministry. A mixed fleet is a likelihood–the TNI fly both Mi-35 gunships and newly arrived AH-64E Apache Guardians for close air support.

To prepare for the future, Indonesia is participating in the KF-X program of South Korea’s aerospace sector by helping fund its R&D. Jakarta and Seoul have enjoyed years of warm relations and this has carried over to military exports. The AU is the second largest operator of the FA-50 trainer after the ROK Air Force and this relationship may deepen in the 2020s. But progress on the KF-X program, whose goal is producing a fourth-generation stealth fighter, is so slow and with the arrival of F-35A’s in South Korea the entire effort may lead nowhere.

Given its geographical size and the myriad threats across its periphery, the TNI have a difficult mandate to secure a country that’s not only populous (estimated at 260,580,739 in 2017) but could soon emerge as a world power with strategic prerogatives at a time when regional conflicts are always simmering. Whatever shape the AU finds itself in by the end of its modernization process, its job won’t get any easier.

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