MANILA, Philippines — The results of Indonesia’s recent presidential election could be a boon for military modernization programs, as the current defense minister is in the lead, an expert told Defense News.

The Feb. 14 presidential election saw Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto garner nearly 60% of the votes, as of March 5. Since assuming the post in 2019, Prabowo has pushed for large-scale military modernization and increases in defense spending, despite the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Indonesia’s economy and partially reversing poverty-reduction measures, according to the World Bank.

Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Indonesia has consistently built up its defense since the term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, first elected in 2004. And given Prabowo’s background, he will likely support continued military modernization efforts, Koh added.

“In some ways, one may argue that he might be more enthusiastic about it,” he said.

But given the country’s fiscal state and the scale of modernization the military requires, Prabowo might only be able to complete programs already in the works rather than start new ones, Koh added.

Prabowo was a lieutenant general and commander of the special forces known as Kopassus that were blamed for human rights abuses, including the torture of 22 activists who had opposed Suharto, the authoritarian leader whose 1998 downfall amid massive protests restored democracy in Indonesia.

Human rights groups have claimed that Prabowo was also involved in a series of human rights violations in Timor-Leste in the 1980s and 1990s, when Indonesia occupied the now-independent nation. Prabowo has denied those allegations. The alleged human rights abuses led to Prabowo being forced out of the military, and he was dishonorably discharged in 1998.

Orders and hiccups

Indonesia has pivoted toward naval and air modernization efforts. In 2021, it signed a deal with Airbus realted to A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft, anti-submarine and transport helicopters, and A400M transport planes. The helicopters are already in service, and the Defense Ministry finalized orders for two A400M aircraft in January. The A330 acquisition remains under discussion, company officials told Defense News.

In 2022, the government ordered 42 Dassault Rafale fighter jets for $8.1 billion, and it most recently completed orders for the last 18 jets in January 2024.

In August 2023, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with Boeing to acquire 24 F-15EX jets, and it also placed orders for Sikorsky S-70M Black Hawk helicopters.

The Defense Ministry also signed a contract to buy a $100 million submarine rescue vessel from the United Kingdom, and it’s reportedly in talks for two more Scorpene submarines from France’s Naval Group.

While President Joko Widodo last year approved approximately 139.3 trillion rupiahs (U.S. $8.9 billion) in defense spending for 2024 — a 20% increase from the prior budget — the government still needs more to meet its military modernization goals.

And the country appears to be falling behind. Under its Minimum Essential Force policy, the government is to complete a list of military upgrades and asset procurements the end of the presidential term, which is October 2024.

As of September 2023, the Air Force had met 51% of its goals, the Army 60% and the Navy 76%, according to Evan Laksmana, Southeast Asia military expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

The problem, Koh said, is that while Indonesia did list specific assets and capabilities under its policy, it had not provided enough specifications for planners to further the country’s goals.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s pivot to naval and air modernization might cause an uproar in the Army, which has traditionally received the lion’s share of the budget pie. The Army has been clamoring for artillery and land systems amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Koh said.

“The Air Force will have a tougher time these days and in the future when it comes to competing with funding with the Army,” he explained.

For example, Indonesia reportedly scrapped a deal to buy 12 used Dassault Mirage 2000-5 jets from Qatar to replace its retiring F-5 fleet. Public backlash pushed the government to abandon the plan days ahead of the Feb. 14 presidential election.

Indonesia is also behind on payments for a joint program with South Korea. The countries agreed to co-fund the KF-21 Boramae fighter jet program.

When asked for an update, Sangshin Park, a regional manager for KF-21 manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries, told Defense News: “We also don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re still waiting.”

Edna Tarigan and Achmad Ibrahim with The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Leilani Chavez is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. Her reporting expertise is in East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.

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