Warplanes: Indonesia

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April 24, 2020: Indonesia recently ordered 14 ScanEagle UAVs and three Bell 412 helicopters from the United States. ScanEagles are sold as a system, with each system including a ground controller and four ScanEagle UAVs. Indonesia apparently bought three systems plus two spare UAVs. Including training and tech support contracts this would cost about $40 million. Indonesia is getting the ScanEagle 2, which entered service in 2015. This version has a more powerful and reliable engine. That meant more power was available for sensors; from the original 60 watts to as much as 100 or (depending on what other equipment is operating) 150 watts. There is also a more user-friendly ground control system and a better onboard navigation system. Aside from a slightly longer fuselage, ScanEagle 2 is the same size as the original. The only operational difference is that the 2.0 version can only do 16 hours per sortie versus 24 for the original. This is OK with nearly all users, who rarely do missions over 16 hours. Many older ScanEagles were upgraded to the 2.0 standard by adding or replacing a few components.

The original ScanEagle weighed 19 kg (40 pounds), had a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan, and used day and night video cameras. On ships, it uses a catapult for launch and is landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. On land, ScanEagle can land on any flat, solid surface. The ScanEagle can fly as high as 6,100 meters (19,500 feet). ScanEagles’ cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour and can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. Scan Eagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves.

ScanEagle has been in military service since 2005 and was used by civilian operators for several years before that. There are now over a dozen nations using ScanEagle plus many more commercial users. Indonesia will use them for police and counter-terrorism operations as well as maritime patrol. The first commercial users of ScanEagle were high-seas fishing trawlers that used ScanEagle to find and track schools of fish.

The Bell 412 is an updated version of the Bell 212, which is a civilian version of the 1960s era U.S. Army UH-1 ("Huey") transport helicopter. The 5.3 ton 412s normally carry twelve passengers or three tons of cargo. Max speed is 259 kilometers an hour while cruise speed is 226. Endurance is up to four hours per sortie but is usually closer to two hours when fully loaded or operating at high altitudes in hot weather.

The normally unarmed the 412 can be equipped with machine-guns and rockets. The 412 is more capable and reliable than the UH-1 and earlier Bell models, and will last for decades. Introduced in 1981, nearly a thousand 412s have been built so far. Indonesia was an early customer for the 412 and has over fifty in military service and many more working for commercial firms.

The Bell 412 is not the only American helicopter Indonesia uses. In 2013 Indonesia bought eight AH-64 helicopter gunships. With all the accessories (training, spares, and maintenance equipment), that cost $500 million. This was the largest ever American arms sale to Indonesia. For decades, until 2005, the U.S. refused to sell Indonesia weapons because of accusations that the Indonesian government terrorized its own people. There are still some problems with that (especially in Papua), but not enough to stop this sale or others that began after decades of dictatorship ended in 1998, followed by elections.

With the new government came more Russian arms salesmen, eager to make sales before the Americans returned. Russian arms salesmen had a hard time in the 1990s. After the Cold War ended in 1991 there were many potential buyers who backed away from Russia because throughout the Cold War Russian gear had performed poorly. Now, with the Soviet Union gone there, there were no more incentives like free weapons, very cheap weapons, and great credit terms.

The Russians did the best they could and an improving economy back home enabled better sales terms to be offered. Thus, in 2006, Russia offered a billion dollars in loans so Indonesia could purchase eight Su-30 fighters, two submarines, and four Mi-26 assault helicopters over the next five years. The Russians were now back with their famously low prices, immediate delivery, and, now, credit terms.

The Russian sales came to a halt after 2014 because of economic sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine. Those sanctions are still in force and were expanded to include barter deals, which Russia was offering to Indonesia to make a sale despite sanctions. That did not work either. 

Once the Americans were allowed to sell to Indonesia again it became a lot more difficult for the Russians to make a sale there. Russia persisted. In 2012 Indonesia signed a contract to buy six more Su-30 jet fighters from Russia for $78 million each. This was less than the Russians expected. Indonesia already had ten Su-27s and Su-30s but wanted at least 16 of these modern aircraft so they would have a full squadron. Although expensive, the Russian fighters are modern and looked great. They are also relatively cheap to maintain. This was all part of a plan to switch from American fighters (ten F-16s and 16 F-5s) to Russian Su-27s and 30s. But used F-16s are much cheaper than Su-27s, and public pressure forced the Indonesian politicians to hang on to the F-16s and upgrade some of them. Buying from the U.S. was not popular with corrupt Indonesian officials looking for a cut of each arms purchase. That’s easy to arrange with the Russians but very difficult with the Americans.

Currently, Indonesia is considering buying the F-35 rather than the cheaper, but not by much, F-16V. This is the latest version of the F-16 and many existing F-16 users are upgrading to the V standard. Indonesia has ordered 24 used, but modernized, F-16Cs for $31 million each. The ten older F-16s are difficult to upgrade to the V standard and it is easier, and not much more expensive, to replace the older ones with new F-16Vs.

Indonesian Air force generals opposed the acquisition of the F-16s because they feared this will lead to a reduction in the procurement of new Russian fighters. The generals believed the Russian fighters are a better match for the F-18Es and MiG-29s that neighboring Malaysia is acquiring and the F-35s that Australia is buying. But the F-16s have a proven combat record that the Su-27s and Su-30s lack, and this is something the Russian salesmen cannot change. Then came 2014 and the sanctions. Now the Indonesian Air force generals consider the F-35 a worthy acquisition, if only because Australia already has some.

Indonesia was attracted by the equally excellent combat record of the AH-64s. These will be used to help deal with Islamic terrorism and pirates offshore, two problems that many other nations, including the United States, are concerned about.

 


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