Starved of modern equipment, and with a small ageing fleet barely capable of defending the country’s huge airspace, Indonesia’s decision to buy 10 new Sukhoi fighter jets – the last three of which are due to touch down from Russia any day now – might not seem so strange.
Yet Indonesia’s defence budget is paltry – only half Singapore’s, though it has fifty times as many people – and it had to borrow heavily to fund the Sukhoi deal. With money so tight, they might perhaps have looked to other priorities: new ships to police the country’s vast maze of islands, transport planes that could be used for disaster relief.
The thing is, fighter planes are cool. They’re expensive, it’s true, but you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Only not in this case. The Indonesian Sukhois, at 50 million bucks apiece (€39m), are as yet unable to fight. They have no weapons.
“They have had a lot of trouble getting weapons for the Sukhois,” admits a source close to the Indonesian military, speaking on background. “They are looking at building their own weapon systems but I don’t know how easy that will be.”
Even with weapons, which will no doubt arrive eventually, the planes’ true military value is questionable. Ten is barely enough for a single squadron, and there’s certainly no money to buy the advanced control aircraft that modern, networked fighter fleets need in order to be fully effective.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that these pricey flying trinkets have no real purpose. They must make Indonesia’s long-neglected air force chiefs feel much better about themselves; they will look terrific flying over the capital in formation, emitting colourful smoke; and the deal may have greased a few wheels between Jakarta and Moscow.
It would also be wrong to single out the Indonesians because there are plenty of other white elephants lurking in the long grass of dubious defence spending. There’s Thailand’s aircraft carrier, a costly vanity project nicknamed “the Great Royal Yacht” that almost never puts to sea because of maintenance problems. There’s the notorious Arjun tank, which Indian engineers have been stoically building and re-building for 40 years in the hope of giving the country a tank it can call its own.
In the US, interested politicians still want to save the F-22, a prestigious $250m (€196m) fighter plane that is useless in Afghanistan but might just help America fight the Chinese some day. And in the debt-laden UK, the Royal Navy is battling to save its new £2bn (€2.4bn) aircraft carriers, just in case the Falklands kick off again.
So purpose and efficacy are often far from relevant in defence logic. What really matters is whose trophy is the shiniest.