JAKARTA - 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
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
John McBeth is
a former correspondent with the Far Eastern
Economic Review. He is currently a Jakarta-based
columnist for the Straits Times of Singapore.
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