Arms-wrestling in Indonesia

TNI - AD AMX-13 Light Battle Tank Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in danger of being caught in the crossfire between a...

TNI - AD AMX-13 Light Battle Tank
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in danger of being caught in the crossfire between a newly emboldened parliament and the Indonesian military over a controversial US$600 million plan to buy 100 surplus Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks (MBT) from the Netherlands. 

Lawmakers and arms experts say the 62-ton German-built tank is unsuited to a far-flung archipelago with only
two land borders and an under-developed network of roads and bridges that would be major obstacles to their effective deployment, particularly on populous Java. 

It is one of the rare times civilians have challenged the military over an arms purchase and comes not long after the parliamentary defense commission dropped its initial opposition to the retro-fitting of 24 second-hand F-16 C/D fighters being provided free by the United States. 

Unlike the Leopards, the F-16 deal makes a lot more sense because, in concert with expanding the country's ground-based radar network, it will give the under-strength Indonesian Air Force the ability to defend its own air space - something it has been unable to do effectively up to now. 

Army chief of staff General Pramono Edhie Wibowo indicated in a recent interview with Indonesia's Tempo magazine that the decision to buy the Leopards was based not on any consideration of its own strategic needs, but on what Indonesia's neighbors have in their inventories. 

Leopard 2A6

"I am not buying in order to compete with them," he said, apparently referring to Singapore's 96 Leopard 2A4s, Malaysia's 48 Polish-built T-72s and Thailand's recent order for 48 Ukrainian-made T-84s. "But I have to equalize our standing in terms of military power." 

In focusing on narrow issues such as terrorism and international crime, critics note that Indonesia's 2003 Defense White Paper - the only one it has ever issued - made little attempt to establish the sort of strategic framework which normally determines and prioritizes what military hardware a country requires. 

But there is no mistaking what the army wants. Wibowo said if Indonesia enjoyed most favored nation status with Washington, it may have even considered the 72-ton M1 Abrams, the main US battle tank. But he still believes the Leopard is superior in terms of fuel efficiency and maneuverability. 

If the tank purchase is controversial, military experts have been equally critical of the $1.07 billion order for three South Korean U209 submarines, arguing the country is in more urgent need of transport planes and fast ocean-going patrol boats, which serve the dual purpose of disaster relief and protecting vast maritime resources. 

PT-76 & BTR-50 unloading from KRI Surabaya 591

Wibowo says the Leopards, substantially heavier than either the T-72 or the T-84, will be based on Java, presumably centered on the army's Cavalry School at Bandung, south of Jakarta, where soldiers have only a limited area available to train on old French-built AMX-13 and Soviet-era PT-76 light tanks. 

Armored columns normally use the highway network up until they move into actual combat, but Java is one of the most over-populated islands in the world and experts say tanks of that size would chew up already-congested, mostly bitumen roads and turn the countryside into a quagmire. 

A career special forces officer, Wibowo is the brother-in-law of the president, a retired general himself who Defense Minister Pranomo Yusgiantoro and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander Agus Suhartono both say has been the driving force behind the army getting preferential treatment in this year's defense budget. 

Buoyed by surging economic growth, the government will spend nearly $16 billion over the next five years to modernize the 430,000-strong TNI, which despite its previous dominant position in political life still has antiquated equipment dating back to the Cold War era. 

This year's $7.5 billion defense budget, up 30% over 2011, comes with a shopping list that also includes eight AH-46 Apache attack helicopters, twelve 130 mm Russian multiple rocket launchers, 155 mm howitzers and additional French-made Mistral surface-to-air missiles. 

Indonesia will need special approval to acquire the Apaches, which normally only go to countries like Singapore that are considered to have a special relationship with the United States because they provide resupply and basing facilities. 

Back in the late 1980s, president Suharto turned down the military's request for the Leopard 1, a much lighter version of today's heavily-armored model, and instead chose the Alvis Scorpion, a light reconnaissance tank designed to operate in Southeast Asian conditions. 

The 80 Scorpions, 125 AMX-13s (dating back to the mid-1960s) and 30 museum-ready PT-76s currently form the nucleus of the army's 10 tank and cavalry battalions, which are concentrated on Java, but spread out between North Sumatra and Sulawesi. The Marine Corps has an additional two armored battalions. 

Diversified supplies 
Among the army's newest recent purchases have been 154 APS-3s (Acoa), a wheeled, lightly-armed infantry fighting vehicle built by Indonesia's state-owned Pindad arms company, already a major supplier of assault rifles, machine guns and ammunition to the TNI. 

Marinir BMP-3F & PT-76

It has also taken delivery of 17 Russian BMP-3s, a tracked 18-ton amphibian with a 100-mm main gun, and will soon receive 22 South Korean K-21 IFVs, built under a joint production deal between Doosan and Pindad. Both vehicles carry a crew of three and nine troops. 

The rest of the army's inventory is made up of 46 French AVB and 70 Alvis Stormer armored personnel carriers of varying vintages, and about 250 old Saladin, Ferret, V-150 Commando and BTR-60 armored cars needed for the many civil disturbances that continue to rock parts of Indonesia. 

While it may be foolhardy from a cost and logistical standpoint, diversifying sources of supply has become something of a mantra for a country which has a history of being cut off from international vendors at one time or another. 

The latest setbacks were the East Timor-related US arms embargoes in 1992 and 1999. But the Dutch severed the military's supply pipeline in 1956, the Americans for the first time in 1958, and the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1966-7 after the purge of the Indonesian Communist Party. 

Wibowo insists the Leopards will be kept away from border areas, but analysts are still curious about the TNI's plan to create two new armored battalions as part of the reinstatement of a second regional command in Kalimantan, covering Borneo's central and western regions. 

In what appears to be a reaction to the still-unresolved Ambalat territorial dispute in the coastal waters off East Kalimantan, senior defense officials have made it clear they intend to strengthen security along the 2,000-kilometer land border with Malaysia. 

Malaysia's newly-acquired 45-ton PT-91s, the Polish version of Russia's T-72, continue to be based on the western peninsula and there has been no sign Kuala Lumpur intends moving any of them to Sarawak, where it maintains only light armored vehicles. 

While the Leopard deal has been greeted with astonishment by politicians and tank specialists alike, there is still a recognition that the military does need to develop a better capability in mounted warfare than its antique inventory currently allows. 

Some experts even feel the Leopard deal is not as ridiculous as it may seem, pointing to the tank's excellent cross-country mobility. But what is not known is whether they will come with vehicle-launched bridges capable of taking them over gaps and waterways up to 20 meters wide. 

"Tankers get pretty clever in making pathways and of course the tank can handle most jungles and trees up to a foot thick without too much trouble," says one cavalry veteran. "But I am not suggesting it is easy or quick and mountainous or really swampy areas are no-go areas." 

The only combat test case of heavy tanks operating in Southeast Asia has been the Vietnam War, where the 50-ton M-48 Patton did prove effective in supporting infantry actions on the coastal plains and in urban fighting, mostly acting as a mobile artillery platform. 

Significantly, many of the US cavalry units in Vietnam were re-equipped in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the M551 Sheridan, a 15-ton light tank more suited to Southeast Asia but vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades and new Soviet shoulder-fired missiles. 

Marinir RM-70 Grad firing rockets on amphibious exercise.

The M-48s were handed over to a South Vietnamese armored brigade, which fought well in what turned out to be conventional tank battles against communist forces in the closing stages of the war until the supply lines failed and they ran out of fuel and ammunition. 

How Indonesia's Leopards would be deployed remains a nagging question, given the fact that its largest training ground, with a permanent pool of armored vehicles, lies in southern Sumatra. 

In Germany, even with its sturdy bridges and frozen ground in the winter to maneuver on, the American tank units do a lot of training using jeeps as surrogate armored vehicles, both to save costs and to reduce wear and tear on vehicles and the road system. 

But in Indonesia's case, keeping the Leopards on Java, with its dense population and weak infrastructure, would seem to limit their mobility to such an extent it would relegate their role to point defense and defeat the very purpose for having them. 

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