Indonesia: Prabowo Subianto’s Defense Policy: What Has He Accomplished? – OpEd


In the second term of his presidency, Jokowi surprisingly appointed his former rival in the 2019 Presidential Election, Prabowo Subianto, as Minister of Defence. Jokowi stated that Prabowo’s appointment was based on his experience, even praising and giving full confidence, through the statement “I don’t think I need to convey his job, he knows better than me”.

Prabowo has close experience with the military, and is a graduate of the best military school in Indonesia namely the Military Academy (Akmil) in 1970, a former member of the Special Forces Command (Kopassus) and the Head of the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) in 1998. Prabowo is also involved in many military operations such as leading the operation in East Timor in 1978.

Is an Increase in Military Budget an Answer?

During the Presidential debate in 2019, Prabowo firmly stated that Indonesia’s defense was very weak. This is based on the lack of defense budget and budget leakage, so he is committed to improving defense through increasing the defense budget to support the military modernization program. 

The state of Indonesia’s defense equipment system is quite alarming. From the Lab 45 report from 2015 to 2021, there were 7 accidents related to warships. This is also in accordance with the findings from Kompas which states that only 50% of Indonesian defense equipment is in a usable condition.

After becoming the Minister of Defense, Prabowo managed to lobby by increasing the defense budget, even in 2021 the Ministry of Defense received the largest budget of IDR134 trillion. This is equivalent to 0.78% of Indonesia’s GDP. However, this percentage of the budget is still small when compared to neighboring countries in ASEAN which have a percentage of 2-3% of GDP. Not only that, based on a report from CSIS Indonesia 55% of the defense budget is allocated for management purposes and paying soldiers. And only 29% is intended for the purchase of defense equipment. 

However, the budget for defense research is only IDR663.5billion. This is even smaller than 2016 which reached IDR1.43 trillion. This shows that the government’s commitment, especially the Ministry of Defense, is low in supporting the domestic industry. If the research budget for defense continues to stagnate and even decline, then do not ever expect an independence for Indonesia’s defense and in the end Indonesia will continue to export defense equipment and depend on other countries in the long term.

Threats in Front of Prabowo’s Eyes and Pragmatic Attitude

Prabowo massively conducts defense diplomacy through visits to many countries. Within three months of being sworn in, Prabowo has visited 7 countries, namely France, Turkey, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and China. This visit succeeded in convincing France to sell 42 Dassault Rafale fighters, 2 Scorpene submarines, 2 Airbus A400M transport aircraft and 8 Fincantieri frigates from Italy. This indicates that there is a major threat problem in the defense sector that forces Prabowo to encourage the purchase of defense equipment.

One of these threats comes from the South China Sea (SCS). Such a strong threat at SCS led Prabowo to draw closer to the US. This is evidenced by Prabowo’s visit to the US at the end of 2020 and along with the lifting of Prabowo’s travel ban for approximately two decades.  Prabowo also together with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi openly supported the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept initiated by the US. This attitude is an indication that the policies that Prabowo will take in the future will focus on stability in the region.

On the other hand, Prabowo’s attitude towards China is quite pragmatic. When a Chinese-flagged ship re-entered Indonesia’s sovereign territory in the North Natuna Sea in January 2020 Prabowo responded very badly to this action, he said “We can resolve this peacefully after all, China is a friendly country”. Prabowo’s stance is based on the strong influence of China in the Indonesian economy. China is a major trading partner for Indonesia and the second largest investor after Singapore.

Prabowo’s defense strengthening can be linked to the vision of “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (GMF) initiated by President Jokowi in 2014. GMF is a vision to make Indonesia a global maritime axis through five pillars, one of which is Maritime Security, but is its implementation in accordance with the GMF vision? ? 

With China getting more aggressive in SCS, is Indonesia at least able to fight and even offset China’s influence. The Indonesian Navy (AL) only has 113 patrol boats, 11 naval war bases, 13 frigates, 20 corvettes and 5 submarines. With a total area of ​​3.25 million km2 of Indonesian waters, each submarine has a duty to protect 650 thousand km2 of Indonesian waters and every frigate and corvette must guard every 98 thousand km2 of Indonesian waters. Whereas the Navy’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF) targets that by 2024 the Navy has 10 to 12 submarines, 56 frigates and corvettes and 66 patrol boats. We can conclude that in the next few years Indonesia’s attitude will remain the same as it is today.

However, China’s aggressiveness in the SCS seems to lead Prabowo not to buy weapons from China. This is a step that should be appreciated considering that neighboring countries do the opposite. Several countries in ASEAN have begun to change their defense policies. In 2015 the Thai government approved the purchase of 2 submarines from China with a value of $723 million, while Thailand has so far met its defense equipment needs from the US. The Philippines did the same thing, in 2017 the Philippines received weapons assistance from China amounting to $7.3 million. In fact, China is increasingly aggressive in SCS through increased patrols and does not comply with the results of the trial from the International Court of Justice regarding claims on SCS.

Continuing his predecessor’s policy,

Prabowo is still continuing his defense diversification program by purchasing weapons and defense equipment from many countries. The Indonesian Air Force has F-16s from the US, T-50i from South Korea, Su-27 and Su-30 from Russia, Hawk Mk109s and 209s from the UK and in February 2021 Indonesia got 42 Rafale fighters from France. Economically, with many types of aircraft, maintenance costs will automatically increase. Officers will be forced to understand all types of aircraft that lead to inefficient. However, politically, no country can determine the direction of Indonesia’s defense policy.

On the other hand, the fulfillment of MEF has not gone according to expectations. MEF is a mechanism used to design defense strengthening through modernization of defense equipment. MEF is under the auspices of the Strategic Plan (Renstra) which runs for a period of 5 years. The Ministry of Defense targets that the MEF will be fully fulfilled in 2024. From the Ministry of Defense ‘s overall report, the MEF in 2020 only reached 63% with details of the Indonesian Navy 45%, Indonesian Air Force 67% and the Indonesian Army 77%.

The unsuitable condition of the defense equipment system, the unfulfilled MEF and President Jokowi’s desire to form a “master plan” for Indonesia’s defense within 25 years

have pushed Prabowo to carry out massive military modernization. Prabowo proposed that the Defense Ministry needs IDR1700 trillion or the equivalent of $125 million to modernize the military in the form of foreign loans.  If we look at the problems facing Indonesia today, the $125 million budget is a commensurate budget.

However, is the Indonesian economy able to support such a large budget? Indonesia’s GDP in 2021 will reach IDR16 trillion with an average annual economic growth of 5%. If based on this data then the budget of $125 million should not be too big but provided that the money is spent properly. 

In the end, through a defensive defense system, the government should have carried out a massive modernization of the military. The threats that do not subside must be an important note for Prabowo, starting from the SCS to the defense equipment that is not suitable for use. However, Prabowo’s pragmatic attitude towards China raises the question, is Prabowo really serious about safeguarding Indonesia’s defense?

*Gufron Gozali is a research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia

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