France Confirms That Indonesia Wants To Buy Rafale Fighter Jets
The country has been seeking a new combat aircraft, with France’s Dassault Rafale the latest in a line of candidates.
Indonesia’s protracted search for a new fighter aircraft has taken another, surprising, twist, with confirmation that the Southeast Asian country is in negotiations with France to purchase Dassault Rafale multirole jets. The latest development comes after Indonesia showed interest in Austria’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet, and with plans to acquire Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 Flankers apparently still stalled.
The potential sale of 36 Rafales was confirmed yesterday by French Minister of Defense Florence Parly, during a TV interview. She noted that the contract signature was still pending, but that the deal was “very well advanced.”
France’s La Tribune financial website had previously reported that talks between Indonesia and France had begun, but mentioned 48 Rafales rather than 36. According to this source, Jakarta is eager to “quickly finalize an agreement” on the purchase as part of a wider defense cooperation agreement between the two countries.
The website further stated that “several corroborating sources” had confirmed that the negotiations “are progressing very well,” with Jakarta hoping that the deal could be signed off before the end of the year. On the other hand, the French side is apparently erring on the side of caution, hoping to secure more time “to complete a meticulous agreement.”
France doesn’t have a long history of major arms transfers to Indonesia, but in recent years the country’s defense industries have been making more inroads here, including the sale of an additional eight Airbus Helicopters H225M combat search and rescue rotorcraft to the Indonesian Air Force in 2019.
Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto met with Parly in Paris in October to reiterate his interest in the Rafale, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. The current export customers for this type are Egypt, India, and Qatar. In recent months, Greece, too, has unveiled plans to buy 18 of the French jets, as The War Zone discussed in this previous article. The Dassault fighter is also in the running for fighter procurement programs in Finland and Switzerland, with decisions due in both countries next year.
While an Indonesian move for the Rafale had not been expected, it is clear that the country is eager to introduce a new fighter type to help modernize its inventory. The Indonesian Air Force’s fighter fleet currently operates around eight survivors from the 12 F-16A/B Block 15OCU fighters delivered from 1989, plus 23 upgraded F-16C/Ds. One example of the latter was written off in an accident in 2015.
As well as this U.S.-supplied equipment, the Indonesian Air Force flies different versions of the Russian-made Flanker, in the form of five single-seat Su-27SKs and a pair of two-seat Su-30MKs, deliveries of which started in 2003, along with nine two-seat Su-30MK2s, the first of which touched down in the country in 2008.
It had been expected that Jakarta would buy additional Flankers, in the form of the latest multi-role, single-seat Su-35 version, and a $1.1-billion deal for 11 examples was announced in July 2017. According to unnamed sources in Indonesia, Washington has applied pressure on Jakarta to shelve the deal with Moscow, threatening sanctions in response. However, in March 2020, Dmitry Shugayev, director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation insisted that the Su-35 deal was still on.
A more ambitious plan for the Indonesian industry to jointly build the KF-X new-generation fighter with South Korea has also run into trouble. Indonesia remains involved in the KF-X, with PT Dirgantara Indonesia working as an industry partner alongside Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI). This 20 percent share of the project was hoped to translate into Indonesian orders for 50 of the jets. The first prototype of the KF-X is now taking shape in South Korea but, last August, Indonesia failed to pay its second installment to secure its stake in the program. Moreover, the KF-X is not expected to enter production until sometime between 2026 and 2028, meaning a new fighter is likely still needed in the interim.
The search for an alternative to the Su-35 seems to have taken Minister of Defense Subianto on visits to Austria, France, Turkey, and the United States, last October, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review.
As well as political sensitivities, which seem to have scuppered the potential Sukhoi deal, Subianto also has the problem of balancing his country's books, with a defense budget that’s been hit by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Importantly for Jakarta, the Su-35 deal with Russia would have seen half the payments made in the form of exports of palm oil, rubber, and other commodities.
In addition to the potential Rafale sale, Austria’s defense minister had also confirmed earlier this year that she planned to begin talks to sell the country’s 15 Typhoons to Indonesia. While these second-hand aircraft could well provide a lower-cost solution, such a deal would also require a political consensus in Austria, as well as approval from the four Eurofighter partner nations — Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom — as well as the United States. As The War Zone pointed out before, however, the Typhoons offered by Austria currently lack the kind of air-to-ground capability that Indonesia might be required to counter the growing number of domestic terrorist groups, for example.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Subianto’s visit to Washington D.C. included talks about buying a new fighter. It may have included a discussion of the viability of potential Su-35 or Typhoon orders and their political implications, but it’s also possible that the purchase of a U.S.-made fighter was on the table.
It’s reported that the United States has offered Indonesia more F-16s, now including the latest F-16 Block 70/72 variant, as well as pilot training. Lockheed Martin has already made a concerted effort to pitch the F-16 Block 72 to Indonesia, promising “cutting-edge technology to the Indonesian Air Force in the most advanced F-16 configuration on the market today.” This includes an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, new mission computers plus display processors, a large-format 6x8-inch high-resolution display, an internal electronic warfare system, and an advanced data link.
Moreover, there is currently a significant effort to secure additional Foreign Military Sales orders for the F-16, based on Lockheed Martin’s new baseline configuration for the jet, that will come with a standard base price tag, and which you can read more about here.
In November 2019, it was reported that Indonesia was looking to acquire two squadrons of new F-16s — likely around 24 aircraft — as part of the country’s five-year strategic plan, running from 2020 to 2024. At that time, however, Indonesia was still pursuing the Su-35 purchase and the status of the potential Viper deal is now uncertain.
Furthermore, and despite these overtures, there have been reports that Indonesia is holding out for the more advanced F-35 from the United States, rather than the F-16. Considering the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter, and Indonesia’s tight budget, that may still not be realistic, even if such a deal were approved by the U.S. government. It is also possible that interest in the F-35 is being used by Indonesian officials as a bargaining tool, perhaps to secure a better deal for the F-16 or American approval for the Su-35 acquisition.
There could also be a resistance to “buy American” after that country imposed an arms embargo on Indonesia between 1999 and 2005, as a result of human rights violations in East Timor. This affected the availability of the aircraft already delivered to Indonesia, including the first batch of F-16s, and now-retired F-5E/Fs.
Regardless of Indonesia’s final decision, there is a clear desire to purchase new jets, reflecting the country’s strategic position at the southern end of the South China Sea, where air policing is set to be an increasingly important mission in the future. In particular, a maritime dispute between China and Indonesia rumbles on in the region, exemplified by recent incidents in which Chinese fishing boats accompanied by Chinese Coast Guard vessels have entered waters within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. As well as fishing rights, these waters also include Indonesia’s largest untapped natural gas field, the East Natuna gas field, a key strategic resource.
In the past, incursions by the Chinese fishing fleet have led to formal diplomatic protests from Jakarta. The Indonesian military has also responded by deploying naval vessels to the area and F-16s to Natuna Island.
With these maritime disputes in mind, Indonesia is additionally weighing up the purchase of French-made Scorpène class submarines and Gowind class corvettes. For now, however, a fighter jet seems to be the clear priority.
While the Rafale might still be an outsider for Indonesia, it would clearly offer a high level of capability as well as seemingly being a politically “safe” option that’s received approval from senior French officials. However, the complex path to providing Indonesia’s future fighter may well throw up yet more surprises.
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