Imanuddin Razak, Jakarta – While it remains unclear whether the arms procurement to fulfill the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) military modernization program will continue as planned, the Defense Ministry is introducing a mass-based national defense system to ensure the country can match its neighbors.
Defense Ministry Director General of Defense Potential Bondan Tiara Sofyan announced last week the government would recruit young people as military reservists sometime in the middle of this year. The recruitment will implement Law No. 23/2019 on the management of national resources for state defense. Enacted last September, the law stipulates that the military reserve is a voluntary service that can be mobilized to help the Indonesian Military (TNI) deal with armed threats.
The ministry is now seeking potential candidates aged 18 and above to enroll in the program. It is expected about 25,000 reservists will be gradually recruited.
The new scheme has received a lukewarm welcome particularly from military observers and human rights activists, who have expressed concerns about potential abuse of the military reserve component as a tool to suppress civil society groups. They also fear the criminalization of reservists who decline to answer the call to military service.
Such opposition makes sense given the lack of clarity behind the introduction of the new defense scheme.
Perhaps the government, in this case the Defense Ministry, could explain the urgency for implementing the 2019 law, particularly the establishment of the military reserve component. There seems to be no indication of an armed threat, particularly from external forces, that requires immediate recruitment of military reservists to support the TNI as the guardian of the state against external threats.
As the ministry emphasizes the need to strengthen the TNI, it would be reasonable to assume that the threats are real – and imminent. It could be concluded too that the number of TNI personnel is not sufficient to meet their responsibility to protect the vast archipelago and its people.
There are few exact figures on the number of TNI personnel, but it has been estimated that there are some 400,000 active servicemen and women within the three TNI services – the Army, Air Force and Navy.
There are no official or standard guidelines on the ideal posture of a country's military either. Yahya Muhaimin, a senior military observer, who served as education minister under then president Abdurrahman Wahid, has set the ideal number of military personnel at 1 percent of a country's population. Based on Yahya's ratio, the country falls short of 2.2 million soldiers.
When it comes to the defense budget, it is an open secret that 40 percent of the money goes on payroll, 30 percent on operational expenditure and the remaining 30 percent on arms procurement, military/defense facilities and infrastructure, and maintenance.
If the country intends to increase the number of service personnel by 2.2 million, the state budget allocated for defense may not be enough to ensure the well-being of those personnel, let alone to modernize the TNI's primary weaponry systems and the three services' day-to-day operations.
This is perhaps the reason why the Defense Ministry has proposed the formation of the military reserve component, which may not sap the defense budget because the reservists will only be called up when the state needs them. On normal days it would be business-as-usual and after the end of their service the reservists could return to their workplaces as participation in the reserve will not affect employment rights as stipulated in the 2019 law.
The establishment of a reserve component has only reinforced demand for the government to build a professional military institution through the modernization of the national defense system and improvement of personnel welfare.
The MEF military modernization program is inevitable if Indonesia wants to possess a strong military with an effective deterrent, in particular because future warfare will rely much more on high tech defense equipment.
The MEF was introduced in 2010 by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and will end in 2024, the final year of Jokowi's second term.
Included in the shopping list are the latest generation of jet fighters for the Air Force, the ongoing joint production and development of submarines with South Korea for the Navy, as well as infantry, artillery and armored weapons procurement for the Army. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has gone on an international roadshow to a number of European countries in the past few weeks meeting European governments, particularly their defense ministers, and defense companies apparently discussing possible defense cooperation and procurement.
It remains to be seen whether the minister's series of European visits produces a recommended shopping list for the country's weaponry-modernization program. Or is the establishment of the military reserve component an alternative to the stalled or delayed weapons procurement?
The government needs to answer these questions, otherwise doubts, indeed suspicions, will continue to linger. The government also needs to provide clarity about the sustainability of the much-anticipated MEF program.