Gabriel Honrada – France is offering its latest Scorpene submarines to Indonesia, a big ticket deal that if done would mark a milestone in Jakarta's naval modernization program and reset the region's underwater balance of power including in the South China Sea.
This month, Naval News reported that France's Naval Group had proposed a new variant of its Scorpene submarine, known as the "Scorpene Evolved", to Indonesia. Jakarta first announced its intention to acquire Scorpene submarines in March 2022, though questions over financing hang over the acquisition.
The Naval News report says that the submarine's propulsion system will be installed with a full Lithium-Ion Battery (LIB) configuration, giving it the most extended endurance of any other variant in the Scorpene family.
The complete LIB configuration will enable the Scorpene Evolved to have a total endurance of 80 days, an operational range of over 8,000 nautical miles, a lower indiscretion rate and maintain top speed longer.
It also says that the Indonesian Navy (TNI AL) will find it easier and less expensive to maintain and operate the submarines than air-independent propulsion (AIP) ones, which require complex offshore facilities and extra training for submariners and personnel involved in resupplying the system.
Naval News says the LIB configuration aligns with the plan for Naval Group and Indonesian state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL to establish an Energy Research Lab in Indonesia as part of a Scorpene submarine deal.
If successful, the source notes that the LIBs for a second and subsequent batches of Scorpene Evolved that Indonesia might purchase and build in the future will come from the lab, which could be used to develop other energy-related technologies for military and commercial markets.
The Naval News report says Scorpene Evolved has been offered along with the Black Shark torpedo, the more modern F21 heavyweight torpedo and a complete integration of the MBDA Exocet SM39 submarine-launched cruise missile.
It notes that if TNI AL chooses to purchase the F21 and SM39 later, no additional adjustments or upgrades will be required, including for combat management system software.
Naval News notes that despite Scorpene Evolved's higher performance than the basic Scorpene submarine variant, it is still being offered in a complete local production, integration and testing scheme for two submarines at PT PAL's existing submarine construction facility in Surabaya.
The report says that the scheme ensures that 30% of the total contract value is returned to Indonesia through technology transfer, offsets and the creation of thousands of high-skilled jobs.
LIB technology has several advantages over other AIP technologies. In a December 2022 article for USNI News, Eric Wertheim says that the advantages of LIB submarines include enhanced battery discharge rates, faster recharge times and higher energy density over more conventional ones.
Wertheim says this results in improved speed and acceleration, quieter operations, longer underwater endurance and significantly better overall performance. He also notes that LIBs save weight by making an AIP system unnecessary to extend the submarine's underwater endurance.
However, LIB technology for submarines does have its drawbacks. In an August 2019 article for The Strategist, Paul Greenfield notes that the technology still has to overcome problems such as chemical stability, capacity reduction over time, internal short-circuiting, and potential thermal runaway leading to catastrophic fires.
Indonesia's far-flung 17,500 islands have made it imperative for Jakarta to acquire and operate a substantial submarine fleet. Felix Chang, in a September 2021 article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), noted that while the TNI-AL's mission has until now primarily focused on defending Indonesia's maritime borders, China's increasing encroachment into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), especially around the Natuna Islands, has made naval modernization imperative.
Moreover, China has developed long-range strike capabilities that can hit Indonesia outside the latter's EEZ. In a June 2020 article for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Thangavel Balasubramaniam and Ashok Kumar Murugesan note that in May 2018, the People's Liberation Army – Air Force (PLA-AF) landed a H-6K nuclear-capable, long-range strategic bomber on Woody Island.
The writers noted that the bomber can carry six electro-optic or infrared imaging guided air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), with the CJ-20 ALCM extending its strike range from 3,500 to 5,000 kilometers.
Additionally, Balasubramaniam and Murugesan say that China's artificial islands in the South China Sea are equipped with DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles and a ground-launched variant of the YJ-12B anti-ship missile, posing a threat to regional states including Indonesia.
Such a situation makes it imperative for Indonesia to be able to operate beyond its EEZ and even pre-emptively strike these threats rather than attempting to intercept the missiles over its territory. With their stealth, long range and land-attack capabilities, submarines may be a more cost-effective deterrent rather than fielding missile defense systems.
As of February 2023, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) notes that Indonesia operates one Cakra and three Nagapasa-class submarines based on the German Type 209 class. NTI says that the Cakra and Nagapasa classes can stay underwater as long as 50 days, travel up to 21.5 knots while submerged and are armed with heavyweight torpedoes while the Nagapasa class can carry anti-ship missiles.
That force is short of Indonesia's desired submarine numbers, however. In a March 2022 article for Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto says that Indonesia's Minimum Essential Force (MEF) 2024 assessment calls for ten submarines, noting that the pace and funding of its defense modernization makes it challenging to achieve that desired fleet strength.
Furthermore, the loss of the KRI Nanggala in April 2021 may have caused Indonesia to rethink its submarine program partnership with South Korea, with doubts arising over the latter's capability to build and maintain submarines for export customers.
France could thus become Indonesia's submarine program partner of choice. In March 2022, Asia Times reported that Indonesia had announced its intention to purchase Scorpene-class submarines from France.
In February 2022, PT PAL of Indonesia and Naval Group of France agreed to work together to build two Scorpene submarines and create a joint research and development center in Indonesia.
That decision was taken despite a procurement agreement signed in April 2019 between Indonesia's Ministry of Defense and South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME).
Following that, Asia Times reported in May 2023 that the Indonesian Ministry of Finance had approved the Ministry of Defense's request for foreign loans worth US$2.16 billion to fund its submarine acquisition program.
Defense resource Janes obtained a declassified letter during the International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX 2023) revealing that Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati referred to a request from Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, which listed 25 military procurement programs for which foreign loans have been proposed as the source of funding for 2023.
France and Indonesia's deepening cooperation on Jakarta's submarine program may also point to a bilateral confluence of interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Natalie Sambhi notes in a May 2021 article for The Strategist that France and Indonesia share several big-picture interests in the Indo-Pacific, not least a stable and peaceful South China Sea. Sambhi writes that Indonesia's desire to build its naval power might also jive with France's interests as the world's third-largest arms exporter in 2022.
In a February 2022 article for ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Eric Frecon mentions that France's Indo-Pacific strategy is a revival of "Gaullo-Mitterrandism," a diplomatic doctrine that prioritizes French national interests and values in a multilateral framework.
Frecon notes that approach is evident in its investment in relationships with other Indo-Pacific middle powers such as Indonesia, which offers France an avenue to transcend the narrative of Sino-US bipolarity and move toward a more multipolar global order.