Indonesian lawmakers want the sister ship of the KRI Nanggala 402 – which sunk recently, killing all 53 crew members – to be grounded before it can be proved seaworthy.
The sinking of the 44-year-old submarine, they note, has highlighted the dangers that Indonesia’s aging military hardware presents to the country’s servicemen, with some criticizing the government for not investing enough in the country’s defenses’ maintenance and modernization. The KRI Cakra 401, the Nanggala’s sister ship, is just four years younger.The debate erupts as the country tries to strike a balance between the conflicting demands of creating employment, combating the Covid-19 pandemic, and protecting the country from Chinese ships and foreign fishing vessels.
“I propose that KRI Cakra be grounded for the time being. Until there are thorough checks and responsibility [towards the vessel it should not be] allowed to operate,” T.B. Hasanuddin, a lawmaker and retired two-star general, told This Week in Asia .
Hasanuddin is a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle’s governing coalition and serves on a commission that oversees defense, foreign relations, security, and communications.
KRI Cakra 401 should also be grounded, according to Farah Puteri Nahlia of the National Mandate Party.
“To prevent a similar disaster, the Indonesian National Armed Forces must temporarily halt the operations of similar submarines, such as KRI Cakra 401, until there is certainty of the submarines’ sea worthiness,” Farah told Tribunnews.com.
Collin Koh, a senior research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, accepted. According to him, the preliminary assessment of Indonesian authorities was that the Nanggala’s sinking was caused by a “heavy underwater current.”
“But an investigation using other evidence would be necessary to ensure that technical causes aren’t ruled out first,” said Koh.
“Without fully establishing the causes of the submarine’s loss, it would be irresponsible, or reckless to say the least, to send the Cakra and its crew into harm’s way,” Koh added.
Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asia studies at the Washington-based National War College, went further. He said the Cakra should be “decommissioned” and it would be a “dereliction of duty” not to do so.
“My understanding is that KRI Cakra is currently being repaired and upgraded at a shipyard in Surabaya,” said Abuza.
Abuza said the Cakra was “an extremely old vessel and never completely retrofitted when South Korea sold it to Indonesia”.
“Indonesia’s navy and coastguard are woefully under-resourced and there is insufficient funding for maintenance and upkeep,” said Abuza.
“After the tragic deaths of 53 sailors aboard its sister vessel, it would be a dereliction of duty not to decommission KRI Cakra.”
Submarine warfare, according to Abuza, is “extremely dangerous to begin with,” and the danger is exacerbated “when you consider the age of the warships, the inadequate budget for repair and upkeep, and the ship’s lack of a thorough overhaul when Indonesia took possession of it.”During the Cold War, the former West Germany built the KRI Nanggala 402, which sunk. It was first seen in 1981. It’s a Cakra-class vessel, much like the KRI Cakra.
Indonesia had a submarine fleet of five before the tragedy, including three newly constructed vessels from South Korea. The newest, the KRI Alugoro, was built locally with assistance from South Korea.Many servicemen are concerned about their safety as a result of the tragedy.
Many servicemen are concerned about their safety as a result of the tragedy.
“Yes, [servicemen] are concerned and angry; something must be done, especially in terms of maintenance,” a security source told This Week in Asia.
A major issue is that a “commander is often required to deploy even when the machinery and gears aboard aren’t operating at 100%; even at 50%, problems have been known to occur,” according to the source.
The tempo of operations, lack of funds and a “we make do mentality” were all a cause for concern, said the source.
“The Army, Air Force and Navy need to project the image that they are battle ready. This put more strain on assets that need to undergo maintenance or overhauling,” said the source.
“The priority [of the armed forces] is on the procurement rather than the maintenance. This [sinking] shows the impact of that policy,” the source added.
The source said “buying new toys” was important but just as important was “maintaining them”.
The crew of the doomed submarine had to make do with wages that some described as insufficient, despite their sacrifices and loyalty.“Their daily transport allowance was not sufficient [even] to take a motorbike taxi to the office,” Sukamta, a legislator who sits on a commission overseeing defence matters, told CNN Indonesia.
Sukamta said that during an evaluation of the country’s Primary Weapons System, fewer than 30 per cent of ships were “seaworthy”.
“Truly the condition out in the field is concerning,” Sukamta said.
Koh, the research fellow, said Indonesia’s budget for the armed forces had remained “very modest over the decades”.
He said that with funds to modernise the Primary Weapons System already stretched, “one could expect nothing better for the active-serving personnel.”
“The armed forces aren’t well known for personnel welfare, especially when it comes to salaries and other remuneration,” said Koh.
In the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, the government cut about 9 trillion rupiah (S$826 million) from the defense budget, but Finance Minister Sri Mulyani announced an increase in August to roughly 137 trillion rupiah for 2021, with a large portion of that dedicated to military modernisation, according to Verve Research, an independent organization focused on the relationship between militaries and terrorism.
The 2021 budget represents a 16.2% improvement over the 117.9 trillion rupiah defense budget for 2020.
While the navy does possess some state-of-the-art equipment, such as new light frigates, the South Korean-built submarines, and CN235 maritime patrol aircraft, “on the whole the navy is plagued by operational issues”, Koh said.“So when assets aren’t seaworthy, they’re confined to their bases. Crew don’t get sufficient sea time to keep up and enhance their proficiency, and shore-based training simulators cannot [replace] valuable sea time.
“Equally pertinent is that a lack of capacity hamstrings the [navy’s] ability to conduct day-to-day operations, especially where it concerns the need to maintain a persistent presence in problem areas [such as the North Natuna Sea to deter foreign fishermen and rival maritime forces],” Koh added.
He said that a large portion of the military’s equipment needed to be replaced.
Election issue for Prabowo
According to Verve Research, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto prioritized securing the procurement of high-end capability platforms for the armed forces “in the near future.”
“Prabowo might use his track record [on this matter] to bolster another presidential election campaign,” said Natalie Sambhi, founder and executive director of Verve Research.
Prabowo has run for president of Indonesia twice, but has lost both times to President Joko Widodo. In 2024, he is widely expected to run again. Prabowo, according to Abuza of the National War College, tried to modernize the air force and navy “on the cheap.”
“For example, he is still pursuing a 2017 US$1.14 billion (S$1.5 billion) barter deal with the Russian government for 11 SU-35 fighter jets, so far to no avail,” said Abuza.
Indonesia announced in 2017 that it will exchange Russian fighter jets for palm oil, coffee, and other resources.
Prabowo toured a number of countries with large defense industries from the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2020, including the United States, South Korea, Japan, Austria, France, Germany, and Russia. All of them were seen as potential arms suppliers, according to Sambhi.
“Prabowo plans to purchase a range of naval platforms from frigates to corvettes to submarines, fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles, and Hercules for the air force,” said Sambhi.
Prabwowo announced last week at a press conference that he had drafted a 25-year defense modernization plan.
This, according to Koh, appears to be focused on pre-existing proposals for a sweeping modernisation and recapitalisation of equipment in all three services, with a focus on new fighter jets such as the French Rafale and the US McDonnell Douglas F-15EX and F-16V; new warships, and a redesigned version of the Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class guided missile frigate.
“But the current pandemic situation means finances are tight,” said Koh.
The submarine’s disappearance comes at a time when Chinese coastguard ships and fishing boats are increasingly entering the country’s waters.
“We need at least 12 submarines for our defence needs,” said legislator Hasanuddin.
The Indonesian maritime enforcement agency Bakamla intercepted a Chinese survey ship in the Sunda Strait in January, accused of deploying an underwater sensor. A Chinese coastguard vessel was discovered in North Natuna waters last September, resulting in a two-day standoff with Bakamla. The events took place in the South China Sea, where the US and China are at odds.
“Jakarta is hoping that tensions don’t erupt into an armed conflict,” said Sambhi.
While Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea conflict, Beijing asserts historic rights to areas around the Natuna Islands that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. According to Abuza, China regards Indonesia as a first among equals within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and the bloc will be weak and ineffective without its leadership.
“[China] understands that [Widodo] is far more interested in economic development than foreign policy and security issues, and that the Indonesian economy is completely bound to China.
“China sees weakness in Indonesia’s maritime domain and seeks to assert its dominance, knowing that Indonesia will not push back,” Abuza added.
Source: South China Morning Post