Indonesian Navy Expands its Submarine Force

2 May 2018 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme

Background

On 25 April, the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) received a Nagapasa-class submarine (type 209/1400), the second of three such submarines that it had ordered from South Korea. The submarine was built by South Korean ship builder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) in co-operation with Indonesian state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL. It was handed over during a ceremony at DSME’s Okpo shipyard. As part of an effort to revitalise the indigenous defence industry, the third submarine is being built in Indonesia, using PT PAL’s own facilities; it is expected to be completed within the first half of this year.

Comment

A motivating factor behind the purchase of the submarines is Indonesia’s ambition to modernise its defence force. As specified by the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) programme, Indonesia wishes to upgrade its capabilities in the air, at sea and on the land. Indonesia’s naval capacity is severely underequipped, partly due to a lack of subsurface capabilities. The TNI-AL currently operates two German Cakra-class submarines (type 209/1300) from the 1980s, in addition to the three new submarines from South Korea. It is a significant step back from the 1960s and 1970s, when Indonesia operated one of the most powerful submarine forces in the Asia-Pacific region, which included twelve Whiskey-class submarines, two torpedo retrievers, and one submarine tender. During that period, no other submarine force existed in South-East Asia and Australia only operated six Oberon-class submarines.

Expanding Indonesia’s arsenal of submarines will be useful for protecting its maritime interests in a number of ways. First, China’s interests in the region have seen Indonesia become more concerned about the northern reaches of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which abuts the farthest reaches of Beijing’s “nine-dash line”. China’s militarisation of man-made islands in the region may also necessitate a hard power response from Indonesia, rather than solely relying on diplomatic talks to protect its interests. Second, Indonesia is located astride one of the world’s most important trade routes, the Strait of Malacca. Approximately one-quarter of all goods traded globally pass through the strait, making it one of the world’s most critical submarine choke points. Third, Indonesia’s archipelagic layout means that its waters are especially vulnerable to foreign naval incursions. Submarines in that scenario will be effective in protecting vital waterways and acting as a deterrent against further incursions.

Indonesia is expected to increase its submarine force beyond the four vessels that it currently operates and the fifth that is being built. The original plans were to have at least twelve submarines operational by 2024, but that has since been revised down to eight. The source of the three extra vessels is not yet clear; likely contenders include Russia, France and Turkey. Financial constraints could delay the acquisition of the new vessels, however, as that is the suspected reason behind the reduction in the target number of submarines.

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