Jakarta – Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has confirmed the government's purchase of used Dassault Mirage 2000-5 jet fighters from Qatar, worth some US$734 million, to temporarily plug the gap in Indonesia's air defense capabilities as portions of the current fleet age out of service.
The country's Minimum Essential Force program calls for 10 squadrons of frontline jet fighters by 2024 to safeguard Indonesia's vast airspace. That goal remains a long way off, in part because of the three-year COVID-19 pandemic.
On paper, the Indonesian Air Force has a squadron of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker heavy jet fighters, two squadrons of American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole jet fighters, two squadrons of BAE System Hawk 109/209 advanced jet trainers and light combat jets and a squadron of Brazilian-made EMB-314 Super Tucano counter-insurgency turboprop aircraft.
It also has a squadron of South Korean-made T-50 Golden Eagle advanced jet trainers and another squadron of South Korean-made KT-1B Wong Bee advanced propeller trainers. The Wong Bees are also used by the Air Force's Jupiter Aerobatic Team, bearing its signature red-and-white livery.
A final squadron of American-made F-5 E/F Tiger II light jet fighters was decommissioned in 2016 after 35 years of service.
Even with this mishmash planes, the Air Force has only eight squadrons, or nine in a pinch if we count the decommissioned Tigers. But if we stick to frontline roles, we only have five or six squadrons, so the urgent need is there.
Indonesia signed a $1.14 billion contract in 2018 to buy 12 Su-35 Super Flanker jet fighters to replace the Tigers. The purchase, however, was obstructed by the United States' 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which sanctions countries that buy weapon systems from China and Russia, among other states.
The deal was never realized because Jakarta was wary of possible US retaliation if the contract went through, despite then-US Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis promising a CAATSA waiver for several friendly countries procuring Russian weapon systems as a way to contain China.
As soon as Prabowo was appointed defense minister in President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's second term in 2019, he went abroad in search of weapon systems to beef up the Indonesian Military (TNI). This included brand new French Dassault Rafale jet fighters, as well as Scorpene submarines and Gowind frigates made by French shipyard Naval Group. He also tested the possibility of buying Austrian Eurofighter Typhoons.
Prabowo officially announced the government's intention to buy Rafale and American-made F-15EX Eagle II aircraft during the 2021 defense leadership meeting. The plan's ambition made waves at the time.
While one contract to purchase Rafales has been signed, albeit only six of the 42 first proposed, the purchase of the 36 F-15s and related equipment, worth some $13.9 billion, is far from a reality, despite a US State Department notification in February 2022 approving the sales.
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which disrupted global supply chains, including of weapons and ammunition. Western countries pooled their weapons to beef up the Ukrainian defense, leaving the market tight on supplies, both new and pre-owned.
This has left Indonesia with few options to strengthen its own Air Force in the near term, despite the concerning regional dynamics at its doorstep, namely the South China Sea dispute and possible spillover from any confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.
The procurement of Mirage 2000-5 planes from Qatar, as well as the current efforts to acquire Mirage 2000-9 from the United Arab Emirates, can be seen as a stop-gap measure to maintain the Air Force's combat readiness.
While it is true that Air Force combat aviators will need some training to get accustomed to flying French jet fighters, this may be a good learning opportunity before they pilot the much more advanced Rafale.
But the next administration must nonetheless strive to meet the country's target of 10 squadrons of jet fighters to protect our territorial integrity.