Zakir Hussain – Straits Times Indonesia
Indonesia’s ambition to modernize its ageing military hardware at a time when its economy is powering ahead has hit a temporary roadblock from an unlikely quarter: its MPs.
The parliamentary commission overseeing defense and foreign affairs, which has tended to be supportive of such ventures, was this week sharply critical of the army’s proposals to buy 100 secondhand Leopard tanks from the Netherlands.
At a hearing on Tuesday, its members grilled Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and military chiefs on whether the Dutch were serious about the sale, if enough was being done for the country’s sea and air defenses, and whether the large German-made tanks — which many Asian countries already have — were really the best buy for the sprawling archipelago’s defense needs.
They were also concerned that the purchase would hinder efforts to develop Indonesia’s own defense industry.
“These tanks that weigh 60 tonnes are not suited for Indonesia’s terrain, 70 percent of which is sea,” said Susaningtyas Kertapati of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), who added that many of the roads were in too poor a shape to accommodate the weight of the tanks.
Commission deputy chairman Tubagus Hasanuddin took a more nuanced line, saying: “There is no question that we need main battle tanks. What we need to study, though, is whether the Leopard is the best item for our needs.”
In response to the barrage of fire, armed forces (TNI) commander Agus Suhartono stressed that the proposals to buy 100 Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks — for which $280 million had been allocated — were just that for the moment.
“It is not a final decision,” he said. “There are many other tanks that are also under consideration.”
The latest debate comes a week after Purnomo unveiled plans to modernize the country’s military hardware following a decade of relative restraint in its spending.
But the planned purchase of the Leopard tanks from the Netherlands, which bought them 10 years ago, is unique in that the Dutch insisted it would strictly be a government-to-government arrangement, and that no middlemen, fees or commissions would be involved, army chief of staff Pramono Edhie Wibowo said last month.
On Tuesday, Lieutenant-General Pramono noted that negotiations with the sellers were ongoing, and that the Dutch government had given the assurance that it would see to the sale if the Indonesians were willing.
Some Dutch MPs have pressured their government not to sell the tanks to Indonesia for fear that they will be misused, citing the military’s checkered past and continuing concerns over its role in human rights violations.
Lieutenant-General Pramono said the Leopards would be Indonesia’s first main battle tanks, and having them would allow its own defense industry to benefit from technology transfers.
The purchase would also help support Indonesia’s joint military exercises with neighboring countries, which have largely welcomed the planned purchases, he added, citing Singapore as an example.
“Indonesia is one of a few countries in Asia that do not have the Leopard,” he said, citing East Timor and Papua New Guinea as countries without such a tank. Singapore has some 100 Leopard 2A4 tanks.
Last year, Indonesia’s military purchases included six Su-30 Sukhoi fighter aircraft from Russia, three submarines and 16 T-50 Golden Eagle fighter aircraft from South Korea, and eight Embraer counter-insurgency aircraft from Brazil.
Its equipment list for this year — main battle tanks aside — includes multiple launch rocket systems, assault and attack helicopters, fast patrol boats and a guided-missile destroyer, as well as grants of 24 F-16s from the United States and four C-130s from Australia.
Noted defense group Jane’s in a recent report: “There is a strong will in Indonesia to deter future threats to its abundant energy resources, and to protect itself from natural disasters and terrorism.”
The matter is likely to come up for discussion again in a few months’ time.
Tubagus, who is from the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, told The Straits Times: “It is clear that the purchase of the Leopard is not finalized yet.
“Ideally, we should look to buy medium tanks first so we can produce good ones of our own suited to our conditions,” he said. “After that, say from 2014, we can then talk about main battle tanks.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.