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Are military assistance programs important for US–Indonesia ties?

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US Air Force Airman conducts a post flight inspection on a F-16C Fighting Falcon during exercise Cope West 2018 at Sam Ratulangi International Airport, Indonesia, 19 March 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Tech Sgt Richard Ebensberger/US Air Force).

In Brief

Following US Defense Secretary James Mattis' visit to Indonesia in late January 2018, military assistance programs have emerged as the centrepiece of the US–Indonesia relationship, both in terms of 'hardware' (arms sales) and 'software' (education and training aid).


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By late February, the Indonesian Air Force finally received two dozen used F-16 fighter jets from the United States, a delivery heralded as the largest transfer of defence articles in the history of the relationship. But a narrative is emerging concerning the extent to which arms sales are part of a regional power play between the United States, China and Russia to swing Indonesia’s foreign policy alignment.

Military education and training assistance have been touted as key to solidifying US–Indonesia ties as China’s hegemonic behaviour intensifies. Officials are now seeking to restore education and training of the controversial Indonesian Army Special Forces. A recent Council on Foreign Relations report suggested the United States should increase funding for the International Military and Education Training (IMET) programs for Indonesian soldiers to ‘solidify pro-US sentiment’ and promote professionalism within the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI).

But military assistance alone is a shaky foundation on which to prop US–Indonesia ties.

Indonesian policymakers acknowledge that US military assistance will always be subject to the ebbs and flows of domestic politics in Washington. The US military embargo in the 1990s and early 2000s continues to remind defence policymakers that US assistance comes and goes.

Such uncertainty has driven Indonesia to diversify its arms suppliers. Not only did Indonesia’s arms imports jump from US$36 million in 2005 to almost US$1.2 billion last year, but the number of country suppliers rose from 6 to 23. The pool of 32 countries supplying arms to Indonesia has remained constant since 1950 but each country’s market share fluctuates.

The United States has never been Indonesia’s top arms supplier. During the Cold War, the United States’ average market share was just behind that of the Soviet Union at 20 per cent. From 1992 to 2017, US market share dropped to 10 per cent behind Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands and South Korea.

At the same time, Indonesia’s existing arms and equipment are decaying. Between 1950 and 2016 Indonesia imported 39 types of weaponry and military platforms — aircraft, helicopters, radar systems and missiles, among others — 29 of which are now more than 30 years old. It is farfetched to suggest that Indonesia’s recent push to obtain 11 new Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets — a move that reportedly made Washington unhappy — somehow represents a foreign policy shift. Indonesia’s arms procurement prioritises replacing antiquated military technology across the board, rather than a foreign policy orientation alone.

These trends suggest that the United States is unlikely to be the dominant arms supplier providing Indonesia’s ‘Minimum Essential Forces’ requirements. Nor will it be consistent enough to erase the memory of the military embargo. Indonesia’s supplier diversity is not cost-effective. But having two dozen suppliers means that no single country can have leverage over Indonesia’s defence sector.

No other country (except for Australia in recent years) comes close to the United States in providing foreign education and training for Indonesian officers. Since the 1950s, thousands of Indonesian officers have gone through some form of US-based training or education. By 2015, the Indonesian Army had sent 186 officers to study in 21 different countries. Fifty of them were enrolled in 34 courses and programs across the United States.

But it seems that these programs have not had their desired organisational effect. The military’s doctrinal documents and education materials in recent decades barely align with US conceptions of war-fighting, professionalism or civil–military relations. Out of the 677 Indonesian Army generals who graduated from the academy from 1950 to 1990, less than 16 per cent were trained in one of the US programs.

This trajectory of minimal effect despite maximum effort is unsurprising. Both Indonesia and the United States value military education and training programs for their ability to boost bilateral ties, not for their operational or organisational results. Jakarta also believes that US training confers international legitimacy and fills the occasional training needs. Washington meanwhile believes that education and training programs provide access to and influence over key members of the military elite.

Absent in the relationship is a serious effort on behalf of both states to evaluate how these courses or programs can ‘remodel’ the TNI in the long run. Without systematic ways to measure the success of US training, any claim that IMET funding will ‘turn’ Indonesia towards the US or boost TNI professionalism seems misplaced.

Taken together, US arms sales and training programs are not yet significant enough to influence Indonesia’s foreign policy trajectory, the TNI’s professional development or the country’s overall defence capability expansion. In other words, ‘security deliverables’ alone make for a poor foundation for US–Indonesia ties.

Both presidents Yudhoyono and Obama recognised this reality and instead crafted an expansive US–Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership in 2010 (which led to the Strategic Partnership in 2015). Policymakers would do well to focus on the Strategic Partnership to deal with the broader strategic challenges facing the region rather than haggling over more arms or training.

Evan A Laksmana is a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Indonesia and a visiting fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, WA.

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