In late September, Indonesia signaled its intent to purchase two submarines from Russia to bolster its current fleet. Indonesia’s geography and threats emanating from piracy to hostilities arising in the South China Sea necessitate a large, well-equipped navy. The planned acquisition comes as defense budget cuts are planned in light of the current economic slowdown. Regardless, it is evident that Jakarta sees the need for more submarines as regional threats including China grow more capable.
This planned purchase was announced Monday, September 21st as part of the Indonesian Navy’s 2015-2019 strategic planning. Following a closed door meeting with deputies of the national parliament, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu named Russia as the expected supplier of new submarines. Saying that such a purchase has been endorsed by President Widodo, Ryacudu touted the advantages held by Russian submarines over those from other possible sources and alluded to a possible acquisition of as many as five. Commenting to The Jakarta Post, Indonesian Navy spokesperson Commander Muhammad Zainuddin said “There are many kinds of Kilo-class submarines, we have yet to decide which type we will purchase.”
Russia’s Kilo-class submarines have been popular in the export market; in the region they are operated by Vietnam (four delivered plus two to be built), China (12), and India (nine plus one inactive). Currently two versions are produced, the Type 877EKM and the much improved Type 636. Considered to be one of the quietest diesel submarines in the world, the Kilo is designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ship warfare (ASuW) operations in shallow waters.
The announcement of this intended acquisition comes despite Jakarta’s decision to slash its 2016 defense budget by 6.3 percent to Rp 95.8 trillion; an amount equal to Rp 7 trillion (US$490 million). This cutback is in response to Indonesia’s current economic slowdown which saw 4.67 percent growth in the second quarter this year; the slowest growth in six years. While the government is rationalizing the cut in the context of its ongoing plan to revamp the country’s ageing weapons systems, some have voiced concern. Several lawmakers believe the cutback which amounts to a minor reduction in total government spending will adversely impact the defense plan of achieving minimum essential force (MEF).
Since the 2000s, Indonesia has regularly touted Russia as a potential source of submarines. In December 2013, a team of Indonesian Navy officials travelled to Russia to begin work on acquiring submarines though failed to secure a contract. This January, the Russian government approached Jakarta with a new offer of submarines in addition to a variety of other weapon systems including fighters and helicopters.
Indonesia’s Submarine Requirements
As the world’s largest archipelagic state comprising more than 17,000 islands and vast tracts of water, a strong navy is critical to ensuring the defense and stability of Indonesia. The Indonesian Navy has noted in its Defense Strategic Plan 2024 that a force of at least 10 to 12 submarines are required to cover each choke point in Indonesia’s territorial waters and ensure a MEF strategy is met. To achieve such force numbers will require a significant investment by Jakarta and even with that, will be years away.
Unlike some other Southeast Asia countries, the Indonesian Navy has long experience in operating submarines. Indeed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, apart from the superpowers and China, Indonesia operated the largest submarine force in Southeast Asia and one of the most powerful in the Asia-Pacific region with 12 Whiskey-class submarines purchased from the Soviet Union. Deteriorating relations between Indonesia and the Soviet Union resulted in a spare parts crisis that served to gradually force the Indonesian Navy to prematurely decommission submarines for use as spare parts.
Two Type 209/1300 submarines, the KRI Cakra and KRI Nenggala were purchased from West Germany in 1978 and commissioned in 1981. With the decommissioning of the last Whiskey-class in 1990, these two submarines have provided Indonesia with an undersea capability for over two-half decades. The need to bolster capabilities led Indonesia to award a contract to South Korea for three Chang Bogo-class submarines in 2011 which are expected to be completed by the first half of 2018. Once the three Chang Bogo-class submarines enter service, the navy will still be short seven submarines than it believes it requires. Furthermore the two submarines commissioned in 1981 are due to be decommissioned in 2020.
Impact of Indonesia-Russia sub deal
Even if Jakarta finalizes a deal with Russia for new submarines, it will be years before they can enter service. It is very likely that by 2020, the Indonesian Navy submarine fleet will be down to three, a far cry from the 12 deemed necessary for defense. In a region where submarine fleets are growing by leaps and bounds and threats are rising, Indonesia cannot afford to wait in acquiring more submarines.