The loss of at least 150 lives in the crash of an Indonesian cargo plane raises fresh questions about the military’s reliance on old aircraft and on spending that has prioritized the army over the air force.
The 51-year-old Lockheed C-130 Hercules smashed into a hotel Tuesday in a residential area of Medan, the nation’s fourth-largest city, two minutes after takeoff. The air force, with two squadrons of the workhorse aircraft, has grounded some of its Hercules and de Havilland planes while it investigates the cause, including potential engine failure.
The accident shows the challenge facing President Joko Widodo in modernizing the military and replacing outdated equipment at a time of weaker government revenue and a slowing economy. Widodo, known as Jokowi, has pledged an increased focus on the navy to preserve security in the world’s largest archipelago.
“The air force has traditionally been seen as the poor cousin in the Indonesian military,” said Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association, a non-partisan security watchdog. “That’s a cultural hangover from the 1965 coup, which was mounted by the air force.”
Former dictator Suharto then took power in 1967 while an army general and ruled until 1998, using army posts to maintain control of the country, which is the world’s fourth-largest by people and has the biggest Muslim population.
“All through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s the air force was starved of funds,” James said. “They have pumped a fair bit of money into the air force in the past decade or so but it’s hard to get over those legacies.”
The Medan crash is the latest air force disaster. A Hercules plane carrying military personnel and their families crashed on Java island in 2009, killing around 100 people, and another went down shortly after takeoff in Jakarta in 1991, leading to over 130 deaths. It’s common for military planes to ferry personnel and families around the country.
Jokowi ordered the defense minister and military chief to review management of the country’s defense systems.
“We must change the way we procure our defense equipment, this is now the moment,” he told reporters near Jakarta on Wednesday. “We must not only buy weapons, but also begin to modernize our weapons systems. Our defense industry needs to be involved from the design process, through production, operation and training, so we can remove outdated systems.”
The air force is underfunded and is focusing more on buying new Russian Sukhoi jets than on maintenance of its existing fleet, said Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant.
Russia will supply 15 Sukhoi Superjet 100 planes to Indonesia over three years, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade said in October, days after Widodo was inaugurated.
The president has not laid out a clear plan for military equipment purchases. Indonesia’s defense budget will rise at the fastest pace in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five years, according to a May report by IHS Inc. Spending will increase 17 percent this year to 97.4 trillion rupiah ($7.3 billion), it said.
Indonesia has shortlisted Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Saab AB’s JAS 39 Gripen and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-16 Block 52- plus, and is considering replacing its Northrop Grumman Corp. F-5 E/F Tiger II light attack planes, Xinhua reported in November, citing Indonesian military commander Moeldoko.
Indonesia aims to remodel its naval forces after the U.S. Pacific Fleet, yet about 40 percent of navy assets are between 25 and 50 years old, Chief-of-Staff Admiral Ade Supandi said in an interview in March.
Indonesia bought 10 Hercules C-130s from the U.S. in 1960 after saying the planes were needed to improve the welfare of remote communities so they wouldn’t fall under the influence of communism, according to the air force’s website. By 2014 it had at least 30 of the aircraft, according to its website.
U.S. sanctions on Indonesia’s military — put in place after violence following East Timor’s vote for independence — were lifted in 2005, allowing the resumption of arm sales. The U.S. in 2005 sent technicians and parts to Indonesia to help repair C-130s.
“Those sanctions are long gone but it seems that some trouble persists,” said Rowland. “If they have written off four airframes on a single aircraft type in a decade and a half, something is amiss.”
The army continues to have people at the center of power in Jakarta. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a general under Suharto, was president for a decade from 2004. Jokowi only narrowly beat another Suharto-era army man, Prabowo Subianto, to win office last year.
Since then, facing criticism from his own political party and a dispute with the police, Jokowi has turned to army figures for support, picking another ex-general Luhut Panjaitan as his chief of staff.
Air force chief Agus Supriyatna was due to become head of the military under a post-Suharto system of rotation, yet Jokowi nominated an army general instead.
With assistance from Yudith Ho and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta.
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