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Sinking of submarine KRI Nanggala exposes Indonesia's ageing, underfunded navy

AsiaOne - May 3, 2021

Amy Chew – Indonesian lawmakers are calling for the sister ship to KRI Nanggala 402 – which sank recently with the loss of all 53 crew – to be grounded until it is proven seaworthy.

They say the sinking of the 44-year-old submarine has underscored the dangers Indonesia's ageing military hardware poses to the country's servicemen, with some criticising the government for not investing enough in the maintenance and modernisation of the country's defences. The Nanggala's sister ship, the KRI Cakra 401, is just four years younger.

The debate comes as the country struggles to balance the competing needs of providing jobs, dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and safeguarding the nation at a time of increasing incursions from Chinese ships and foreign fishing vessels.

"I propose that KRI Cakra be grounded for the time being. Until there are thorough checks and responsibility [towards the vessel it should not be] allowed to operate," T.B. Hasanuddin, a lawmaker and retired two-star general, told This Week in Asia.

Hasanuddin is a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle and sits on a commission that oversees defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and communications.

Another legislator, Farah Puteri Nahlia from the National Mandate Party, also called for KRI Cakra 401 to be grounded.

"To prevent a similar disaster, the Indonesian National Armed Forces must temporarily halt the operations of similar submarines, such as KRI Cakra 401, until there is certainty of the submarines' sea worthiness," Farah told Tribunnews.com.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, agreed.

He noted that Indonesian authorities' preliminary assessment had been that a "strong underwater current" could have contributed to the Nanggala's sinking.

"But an investigation using other evidence would be necessary to ensure that technical causes aren't ruled out first," said Koh.

"Without fully establishing the causes of the submarine's loss, it would be irresponsible, or reckless to say the least, to send the Cakra and its crew into harm's way," Koh added.Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asia studies at the Washington-based National War College, went further. He said the Cakra should be "decommissioned" and it would be a "dereliction of duty" not to do so.

"My understanding is that KRI Cakra is currently being repaired and upgraded at a shipyard in Surabaya," said Abuza.

Abuza said the Cakra was "an extremely old vessel and never completely retrofitted when South Korea sold it to Indonesia".

"Indonesia's navy and coastguard are woefully under-resourced and there is insufficient funding for maintenance and upkeep," said Abuza.

"After the tragic deaths of 53 sailors aboard its sister vessel, it would be a dereliction of duty not to decommission KRI Cakra."

Abuza said submarine warfare was "incredibly dangerous to start with" and that danger was compounded "when you factor in the age of the vessels, the insufficient budget for maintenance and upkeep, and the lack of a thorough overhaul for the ship when Indonesia took possession of it."

The KRI Nanggala 402, which sank, was made in 1977 by the former West Germany during the Cold War. It came into service in 1981. Like the KRI Cakra, it is a Cakra-class vessel.

Before the disaster, Indonesia had a fleet of five submarines, including three newly-built vessels from South Korea. The newest, the KRI Alugoro, was assembled locally with South Korean assistance.

The disaster has left many servicemen fearing for their safety.

"Yes, [servicemen] are worried and angry, something has to change, especially [regarding] the maintenance," a security source told This Week in Asia.

A major issue is that a "commander is often forced to deploy even though the equipment and gears aboard aren't functioning 100 per cent; even at 50 per cent, troubles are known to happen," said the source.

The tempo of operations, lack of funds and a "we make do mentality" were all a cause for concern, said the source.

"The Army, Air Force and Navy need to project the image that they are battle ready. This put more strain on assets that need to undergo maintenance or overhauling," said the source.

"The priority [of the armed forces] is on the procurement rather than the maintenance. This [sinking] shows the impact of that policy," the source added.

The source said "buying new toys" was important but just as important was "maintaining them".

Competing needs

For all their sacrifices and loyalty, the crew of the doomed submarine had to get by on salaries that have been described by some as inadequate.

"Their daily transport allowance was not sufficient [even] to take a motorbike taxi to the office," Sukamta, a legislator who sits on a commission overseeing defence matters, told CNN Indonesia.

Sukamta said that during an evaluation of the country's Primary Weapons System, fewer than 30 per cent of ships were "seaworthy". "Truly the condition out in the field is concerning," Sukamta said.

Koh, the research fellow, said Indonesia's budget for the armed forces had remained "very modest over the decades".

He said that with funds to modernise the Primary Weapons System already stretched, "one could expect nothing better for the active-serving personnel."

"The armed forces aren't well known for personnel welfare, especially when it comes to salaries and other remuneration," said Koh.

The government cut around 9 trillion rupiah (S$826 million) from the defence budget in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 but Finance Minister Sri Mulyani announced an increase in August to roughly 137 trillion rupiah for 2021, with a large portion of that dedicated to military modernisation, said Verve Research, an independent organisation focused on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia.

The 2021 expenditure is a 16.2 per cent increase over the original 2020 defence budget of 117.9 trillion rupiah.

While the navy does possess some state-of-the-art equipment, such as new light frigates, the South Korean-built submarines, and CN235 maritime patrol aircraft, "on the whole the navy is plagued by operational issues", Koh said.

"So when assets aren't seaworthy, they're confined to their bases. Crew don't get sufficient sea time to keep up and enhance their proficiency, and shore-based training simulators cannot [replace] valuable sea time.

"Equally pertinent is that a lack of capacity hamstrings the [navy's] ability to conduct day-to-day operations, especially where it concerns the need to maintain a persistent presence in problem areas [such as the North Natuna Sea to deter foreign fishermen and rival maritime forces]," Koh added.

He said a significant portion of defence equipment needed to be replaced.

Election issue for Prabowo

Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto saw securing the purchase of high-end capability platforms for the armed forces "in the near future" as a priority, according to Verve Research.

"Prabowo might use his track record [on this matter] to bolster another presidential election campaign," said Natalie Sambhi, founder and executive director of Verve Research.

Prabowo has run twice in Indonesia's presidential elections, losing on both occasions to President Joko Widodo. He is widely expected to run again in 2024.

However, Abuza of the National War College said Prabowo had tried to modernise the air force and navy "on the cheap".

"For example, he is still pursuing a 2017 US$1.14 billion (S$1.5 billion) barter deal with the Russian government for 11 SU-35 fighter jets, so far to no avail," said Abuza.

In 2017, Indonesia said it would trade palm oil, coffee and other commodities for the Russian fighter jets.

From the end of 2019 to 2020, Prabowo visited various countries with strong defence industries including the United States, South Korea, Japan, Austria, France, Germany and Russia. All were seen as possible suppliers of arms, said Sambhi.

"Prabowo plans to purchase a range of naval platforms from frigates to corvettes to submarines, fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles, and Hercules for the air force," said Sambhi.

Last week, Prabwowo told a press conference he had drafted a 25-year defence modernisation plan.

Koh said this appeared to be based on pre-existing plans for a sweeping modernisation and recapitalisation of assets across all three services with an eye on new fighter jets like the French Rafale, US McDonnell Douglas F-15EX, F-16V; new warships and a modified variant of the Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class guided missile frigate.

"But the current pandemic situation means finances are tight," said Koh.

Chinese intrusion

The loss of the submarine comes at a time of increased intrusion by Chinese coastguard ships and fishing vessels into the country's waters. "We need at least 12 submarines for our defence needs," said legislator Hasanuddin.

In January, Indonesian maritime enforcement agency Bakamla intercepted a Chinese survey ship suspected of deploying an underwater sensor in the Sunda Strait. Last September, a Chinese coastguard vessel was discovered in the North Natuna waters, leading to a two-day stand-off with Bakamla.

The incidents have occurred amid intense rivalry between the US and China in the South China Sea. "Jakarta is hoping that tensions don't erupt into an armed conflict," said Sambhi.

Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea dispute, but Beijing claims historic rights to areas overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands.

Abuza said China saw Indonesia as a first among equals within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and that without its leadership, the bloc would be weak and ineffectual.

"[China] understands that [Widodo] is far more interested in economic development than foreign policy and security issues, and that the Indonesian economy is completely bound to China.

"China sees weakness in Indonesia's maritime domain and seeks to assert its dominance, knowing that Indonesia will not push back," Abuza added.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3131842/sinking-submarine-kri-nanggala-exposes-indonesias-ageing

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/asia/sinking-submarine-kri-nanggala-exposes-indonesias-ageing-underfunded-nav