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With US F-15EX, Russian Su-30 & French Rafale Jets At Disposal, This Asian Power Looks To Check China With Its Diverse Air Fleet

With its plan to acquire American F-15EX fighters manufactured by Boeing, Indonesia is on its way to putting together the most sophisticated and diverse air forces in the region to combat the “China Threat.”

During a visit of Indonesia’s Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto to the United States, the Republic of Indonesia inked a memorandum of understanding with Boeing to acquire up to 24 F-15EX fighters. The agreement was reportedly signed on August 21.

Although the US Aerospace giant emphasized that the deal would still be contingent upon approval from the US government, there is barely any skepticism among military watchers that such an approval will eventually come through. This is essential because Jakarta is a key player in the US security and geopolitical calculus against China.

In February 2022, the US government’s Defense Cooperation Security Agency (DSCA) endorsed a potential US$13.9 billion Foreign Military Sale (FMS) arrangement to supply Indonesia with 36 Boeing F-15IDs. But Boeing’s latest announcement uses the term “F-15IDN” for the Indonesian fighter, contrasting with the previously used designation “F-15ID.”

In a statement indicating how the aircraft would add teeth to Indonesia’s air power, Boeing said: “The F-15EX is the most advanced version of the F-15 ever built, with digital fly-by-wire flight controls, a new electronic warfare system, an all-glass digital cockpit, and the latest mission systems and software capabilities, which will all be leveraged in delivering the new F-15IDN.”

The Indonesian air fleet comprises one of the world’s best and combat-hardened fourth-generation fighter jets. This includes at least 33 American F-16 Fighting Falcons, 11 Russian multirole Sukhoi Su-30MK2s, and five units of Sukhoi Su-27SKM in its inventory.

A Look At Indonesia’s Diversifying Air Fleet

In recent years, Indonesia has raised its defense expenditures to revamp its aircraft fleet. With an eye on upgrading its air force, which currently has fourth-generation fighter jets, Indonesia has been making acquisitions from defense players of different countries.

In February last year, it was announced that Indonesia ordered 42 Rafale fighter jets, making it the second country in Asia after India to acquire these lethal aircraft. The announcement followed a meeting between Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and his French counterpart Florence Parly.

Indonesia purchases the Rafale - Press kits
File Image: Dassault Rafale for Indonesia

On August 10, Dassault Aviation announced that an agreement for Indonesia’s second phase of Rafale fighter aircraft had taken effect on that date. Eighteen Rafales were ordered under the second phase, bringing the total number of aircraft on order to 24 after the first tranche of six Rafales was enacted in September 2022.

Jakarta’s acquisition of Rafale fighter jets occurs in stages rather than all at once. It has been noted by the manufacturer Dassault that the “latest generation” Rafale will provide the Indonesian National Army Air Force with a comprehensive “turnkey” solution and substantial economic advantages for the country’s aviation industry.

Interestingly, Indonesia isn’t just interested in the latest and the most technologically advanced French fighters like the Rafale but also combat-hardened yet archaic French fighter jets like the Mirage 2000-5 fighter aircraft it is buying from a third country.

Citing the exaggerated threats in the contentious South China Sea, the Indonesian Defense Ministry confirmed in June this year that it was purchasing 12 Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets from the Qatar Emiri Air Force for US$792 million. These jets, also used by Taiwan among China’s adversaries, are being purchased on loans.

In addition to these acquisitions, the Southeast Asian country planned to acquire 50 KF-21 new-generation fighter jets, a collaborative endeavor undertaken jointly with South Korea. Jakarta, however, has just a 20% stake in the program.

KF-21 fighter jet

As previously noted by EurAsian Times, the commencement of KF-21 production is nevertheless anticipated to take place only between 2026 and 2028. This timeline makes the Indonesian decision to acquire Rafales and F-15EX appear justifiable.

The two acquisitions and the KF-21 could transform Indonesia into a massive regional military power. Besides these high-end fighter jets, Indonesia has also acquired the South Korean T-50 trainer aircraft.

Indonesia On A War Footing?

Intended to stave off the perpetual threat from China owing to a long-running territorial dispute, Indonesia has been relentlessly making acquisitions of cutting-edge military aircraft for its Air Force. While its fleet was composed of American and Russian jets earlier, Jakarta has taken a more diverse route.

Its acquisitions are supposedly a part of the original 2020–2024 Strategic Planning document, which required the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to receive a budget of $20.7 billion in foreign loans, with a focus on purchasing expensive weapon systems from other nations to meet the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) target.

Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda shared exciting insights when asked whether the country was diversifying its purchases to retain its independence as a great power game plays out in the region.

He told EurAsian Times, “Indonesia’s requirement for a large air force is steeped in its modern history. Based on its lawful EEZ, its archipelagic expanse and maritime extent demand significant air and naval branches. After its independence, Jakarta went on a deliberate military buildup that saw hundreds of Soviet aircraft delivered. The result was its air force became the first in the region to fly Soviet bombers like the Il-28 and the Tu-16.

“During the Suharto era until 1998, the US and France stepped in to help bolster Indonesia’s military. From the 2000s onward, Indonesia strengthened its ties with the Russian Federation and South Korea. So, the long-term trend here is, whichever direction global politics takes, Indonesia finds new allies to help it.”

File Image: Indonesian F-16C Fighting Falcon during a functional check

When asked whether the country needs as much as it is buying, given that the economy is in the doldrums, Miranda explained, “From the USA’s perspective, Indonesia is crucial in its “Indo-Pacific” strategy to contain China. Never mind geography: every water passage and maritime link between the first island chain and the South Pacific connects to the rest of the world through Indonesia.”

It has long been noted that Indonesia may tip the Indo-Pacific’s strategic equilibrium. It is the world’s biggest archipelago in the middle of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In the era of the US-Chinese great-power conflict, the nation’s expanding economic might, history of regional leadership, and control over vital sea lanes appear to have predestined it to be a geopolitical fulcrum.

Miguel said, “Indonesia knows it’s a “middle power” that can shape global politics, but it lacks the military size and strength to support its influence. With rigid American sanctions on Russia in effect since 2014, it’s unsurprising that Indonesia is rekindling old friendships when the Russians are unavailable.”

On the question of KF-21 staying elusive, Miguel noted, “As for models like South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae and its future production–this is years away. The important thing is it’s a prestige project for both Seoul and Jakarta, tying together industrial policy, foreign policy, and the future of regional airpower.

“In the meantime, Jakarta is again striking an ideal balance by ordering Rafale’s and the cutting-edge F-15EX. It does need both fighters since, with the way combat aviation is dominated by Western models, countries that must defend their airspace have no choice but to bet on diverse fleets. Middle Eastern countries have followed this for decades. Whether it’s debt-burdened Egypt or affluent Qatar, the best options are all the available options.”

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