Why does Indonesia need Apache gunships?
A U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter prepares to depart Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on Jan 7, 2012. The Apache conducts distributed operations, precision strikes against relocatable targets, and provides armed reconnaissance when required in day, night, obscured battlefield and adverse weather conditions U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

The recent visit by the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Indonesia was concluded with a decision to sell eight Boeing AH-64 Apache Longbow gunship helicopters worth US$500 million to the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD). The package includes pilot training, radars, and maintenance. However, arguments surrounding the purchase echo concerns about Indonesia’s decision to buy 100 Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks. The Apache gunships are primarily designed to attack other gunships, slow low-flying aircraft, or are used for ground attack and as anti-tank strikes. It simply doesn’t make sense when Secretary Hagel says that they ‘will help Indonesia respond to a range of contingencies, including counterpiracy operations and maritime awareness’. So why did Indonesia buy them?

Similar to the Leopard purchase, there seems to be a sense of ‘catch-up’ with the region in Indonesia’s Apache decision. As one analyst notes, Indonesia’s military procurement strategies seem to be emotionally driven, with a desire to keep up with neighbouring countries. But there are other reasons too.

The Army has been eyeing gunships for some time under the so-called ‘Minimum Essential Force’ (MEF). As per President Yudhoyono’s decree, the MEF is a capability upgrade program for TNI to be achieved in three stages by 2024. Moreover, Indonesia’s Defence Minister said that the TNI should have more modern capability, which it has lacked for the last 20 years. In March 2007, the Army revealed its 25 year plan to acquire around 135 helicopters to form eight squadrons. The plan started with the purchase of Mi-35 gunships in 2003 and 2008. Other than the Apache, the Army also intends to procure Eurocopter AS 550 Fennec light military helicopters.

Acquiring the Apache is also consistent with TNI’s new doctrine to improve fire mobility. Having an agile and flexible Army is critical if Indonesia pursues a maritime-oriented defence strategy, which demands more effective Army coordination with the Navy and Air Force. For example, the Apache could provide tactical air support for naval forces during an amphibious operation within Indonesia’s archipelago. Since 2008, the TNI has started to conduct joint tri-service exercises with a distinctively maritime scenario. After all, having a maritime defence strategy is a geostrategic imperative for an archipelagic nation like Indonesia.

It’s also noteworthy that boosting the Army’s capability, or specifically, purchasing the gunships, doesn’t come at the expense of naval and air force modernisations. In the 2010–2014 period, the government has allocated Rp 150 trillion (US$16.3 billion) for acquisition, in which 62% (US$10.1 billion) is devoted to naval and air force modernisations.

Following the enactment of the law on defence industry, Jakarta also expects the Apache purchase could spur the growth of Indonesia’s defence companies. The law puts strict conditions on arms import, including requirements for technology sharing. While such a scheme appears to be a long way off for the Apache, Washington has agreed in principle to ‘share American technology and expertise which will further deepen our security partnerships’.

Finally, while the Apache seems overmatched for counterpiracy operations, the ‘E’ or Guardian version Washington is selling to Indonesia could be upgraded for maritime strikes. Last year, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said Indonesia requested the Apache to be equipped with APG-78 Longbow Fire Control Radars, and armed with 140 ‘Hellfire’ AGM-114R3 air-to-surface missiles (ASM). This capability could enable the Apache to attack landing craft or small warships.

However, this also depends on where the TNI is going to base and deploy them. For example, basing them in overpopulated Java wouldn’t make the Apache very useful. The gunships are relatively short-legged (approx. 460–485 km flight range) to be flown over directly from Java to meet contingencies in the outer islands, where they mostly occur. In its statement, the DSCA said the Apache:

… provides the Government of Indonesia with assets vital to protect and deter both external and other potential threats. Indonesia will use these Apache helicopters to defend its borders, conduct counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations, and control the free flow of shipping through the Strait of Malacca.

Therefore, instead of Java, the Apache would likely be based somewhere along the Malacca Strait (i.e. Sumatra), or along the border (especially, Kalimantan). As for counterterrorism, they could be used to support ground troops in suppressing terrorist camps, such as those found in Aceh and Sulawesi.

Nor would the Apache be deployed in contentious counter-separatist operations, such as those in Papua. The US Government, along with human rights groups, is already well aware of this possibility and is prepared in advance to make sure the Apache wouldn’t be used in such a scenario. Rather, more than anything else, the sale is meant to ‘enable Indonesia to become more a capable defensive force and will also provide key elements required for interoperability with US forces.’

But there’s another intriguing thing about the deal. For a full package, the DSCA estimated the cost of eight Apache for Indonesia at US$1.42 billion. Why then is the current deal only worth a third of that? It’s possible that the deal doesn’t include all of the armament and support systems. Such a scaled-down acquisition isn’t new in Indonesia’s arms purchases. For example, in 2004, Indonesia bought its first four Sukhoi jet fighters unarmed.

As such, it’s necessary to take Indonesia’s Apache purchase, and other arms purchases to come, with a pinch of salt. Buying platforms doesn’t equate to increased capabilities, let alone if those platforms are sourced from different countries with different weapon systems—precisely the way Indonesia does. Arguing that arms procurement should be diversified due to concerns over embargoes, or for any other reason, comes with an associated risk of platform incompatibility and hence, ineffectiveness. For this reason, Indonesia is still a long way off modernising the TNI, even after the MEF is achieved.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an associate research fellow, Maritime Security Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US Army.