COLUMN | The Indonesian Navy: large and quite well-equipped, but with problems to face [Naval Gazing]

The Indonesian Navy frigate KRI I Gusti Ngurah Rai and the tanker KRI Bontang performing replenishment at sea, October 27, 2021 (Photo: Indonesian Navy)

Indonesia is a country of 17,500 islands with 80,000 kilometres of coastline. It is therefore a nation that needs to place considerable emphasis upon maritime security.

The navy of this former Dutch colony was founded in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The service’s initial inventory was dominated by vessels formerly of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN). From 1949, Jakarta started looking further afield to modernise its fleet.

Political alignment with Russia in the 1960s led to the acquisition of Soviet equipment including a cruiser, destroyers, frigates, and Southeast Asia’s first post-war submarine.

The Indonesian Navy has a lengthy history of involvement in low-key naval warfare in pursuit of national interests, including engagement with Dutch forces over the sovereignty of West Irian Jaya, with Portuguese units over control of East Timor, and with British and Commonwealth warships while the country’s President Sukarno was trying to hamper the emergence of post-independence Malaysia.

Nowadays, Indonesia boasts a force of some 240 warships and ancillary craft, acquired from a wide range of sources, enabling the country to become an active participant in multi-national operations and exercises. A particular contemporary concern is aggressive incursions by China Coast Guard patrol ships into Indonesia-claimed waters around Natuna Island.

Submarine flotilla

KRI Nagapasa, a diesel-electric submarine (Photo: Indonesian Navy)

Indonesia retains a significant submarine force. Two of the 61-metre Nagapasa-class diesel-electric submarines were built by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) in South Korea while the third boat in the class, KRI Alugoro, was constructed under licence in Indonesia. The submarines are armed with Italian Black Shark torpedoes and have an electronics fit that includes Atlas Elektronik active and passive sonars.

The German-built, 1980s-vintage submarine KRI Cakra remains in service, while sister boat KRI Nanggala was lost at sea with all hands in 2021.

A new submarine base is also under construction in the Natuna Islands.

Escort force

The Indonesian Navy frigate KRI Raden Eddy Martadinata (Photo: US Navy)

There are two Dutch-designed 2,400-tonne frigates, KRI Raden Eddy Martadinata and KRI I Gusti Ngurah Rai, jointly constructed by Damen in the Netherlands and PAL in Indonesia between 2014 and 2018. Armament includes a 76-millimetre gun, MICA surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and Exocet surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs).

Diesel-electric power enables these ship to reach a speed of 28 knots. A Panther helicopter is also carried.

The five former RNLN frigates of the Ahmad Yani-class, built to a design based upon the British Leander-class, are now more than 40 years old, but remain in service. After many upgrades over the years, they now feature diesel propulsion and armament that includes a 76-millimetre gun, Russian Yakhont SSMs, and French Mistral SAMs.

The Indonesian Navy Bung Tomo-class corvette KRI John Lie (foreground) during an exercise with US Navy ships in 2015 (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joe Bishop)

The three 2,000-tonne, 30-knot Bung Tomo-class frigates, commissioned from 2014 onwards, were originally constructed by BAE Systems in the UK for the Royal Brunei Navy. However, that contract was aborted for reasons that remain unclear, and the ships were subsequently purchased by Jakarta.

Current armament includes Exocet SSMs and Sea Wolf SAMs. These warships are earmarked for major refit and upgrade.

The four Diponegoro-class and three Fatahilla-class corvettes were all built in the Netherlands and have an armament that includes Exocet SSMs and a number of small- and medium-calibre guns.

Sixteen of the 950-tonne Pachim-class coastal anti-submarine corvettes of the former East German Navy were purchased in 1993 in a hugely controversial transaction. Most of these ships reportedly remain active, retaining an armament of 57-millimetre and 30-millimetre cannon and twin anti-submarine rocket launchers. Some have eveb been fitted with additional armament.

KRI Golok (Photo: Indonesian Navy)

Fifteen fast missile-armed attack craft of mainly indigenous build are on strength. Also worthy of note is the 2,100-tonne fast trimaran attack craft KRI Golok built by Indonesia’s Lundin Industry Invest and commissioned in 2021 to replace a similar craft that had been destroyed by fire. It is reputedly capable of 35 knots and is due to be fitted with SSMs.

The Indonesian Navy amphibious transport dock ship KRI Banda Aceh (Photo: US Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Diana Quinlan)

The Indonesian Navy has a vast inventory of small patrol craft as well as significant amphibious capability centred on the five landing platform dock (LPD) vessels of the South Korean-designed Makassar class.

Present and future problems

According to numerous reports, The Indonesia Navy has long suffered from poor maintenance standards, leading to poor availability of warships for front-line tasks.

This shortcoming is doubtless due, at least in part to inadequate funding, and now a downturn in the economy is obstructing a number of important projects. The programmes to acquire three more submarines from DSME and six new-build FREMM frigates to be supplied by Italy’s Fincantieri are on hold.

Plans for PAL to build a pair of Arrowhead 140 frigates under licence from Babcock of UK, the ongoing indigenous construction of four OPVS, and the modernisation of some existing vessels reportedly remain unaffected, but it remains to be seen if Indonesia will be able to realise its full naval potential in the years ahead.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.