Many may have expected more from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent visit to Indonesia, coming as it did at a time the country was forced to further cut its defense spending.
Washington's offer to sell six 1990 F-16 jet fighters to Jakarta came as a confusing signal from a superpower that considers Indonesia a key partner in its efforts to maintain stability in Asia, the world's most flourishing economic growth hub.
It could be unfair to compare Indonesia with India, to which Gates unveiled U.S. bids for a lucrative US$10 billion fighter contract on the next stop of his Asian trip. But the minuscule package the U.S. proposed to Indonesia should speak for itself.
Still, if the fighter sale materializes it will mark a full resumption of U.S.-Indonesia military ties, which had been strained due to human rights violations implicating the Indonesian Military. The U.S. embargoed sales of lethal weapons to Indonesia after the Santa Cruz incident in East Timor in 1991 and extended the restriction following the post-referendum atrocities in the former Indonesian province in 1999.
Indonesia has suffered from the arms embargo, the impacts of which were visible in a series of accidents involving its war machines in the past few months. Compounded with nagging financial constraints, the country has been forced to operate with the old defense equipment that helped build its military might, at least in Southeast Asia, in the 1960s.
The state of Indonesia's military may have now reached its lowest ebb, although the country's defense budget for 2008 rose by 11 percent from last year's to Rp 36.39 trillion. The budget is a far cry of the minimum Rp 100 trillion the Defense Ministry had demanded to modernize Indonesia's armory. Worse, the ministry may have to slash its spending by 15 percent in line with the government's fuel saving policy.
With the bulk of the budget going to soldiers' welfare, the modernization of the Indonesian Military looks elusive even though many of its jet fighters are no longer airworthy and its warships are not seaworthy. The country will find it difficult even to maintain its war machines or to improve its soldiers' skills.
With over 230 million citizens and 17,000 islands to protect, the poorly armed Indonesian Military (TNI) will be unable to defend the country against attack by another country. Such a population burden is absent in small countries like Singapore, which apart from financial superiority requires its youths to join a conscription program to maximize its national defense capabilities.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself a former Army general, has ordered the TNI to withdraw its aging war machines and called on domestic arms producers to improve capabilities and propel TNI modernization. It will take, however, decades to build a strong national defense industry, whereas the need for a reliable defense force cannot wait that long.
The most the TNI and Defense Ministry can do to protect the nation is increase efficiency, a basic management principle which has not taken root in the country's bureaucracy.
Efficient defense spending will require the Defense Ministry to focus on development of the Navy, instead of the Army or Air Force, given the fact that Indonesia is an archipelagic country. A strong and capable Navy force would enable the country to prevent illegal fishing and logging, which have caused trillions of rupiahs in state losses.
The Army spending can be reduced by gradually phasing out territorial commands, which in the past helped the regime maintain its power. The country is divided into 12 regional military commands, whose presence extend to the village level.
Phasing-out territorial commands is part of a reform agenda the TNI has not been able to carry out so far. Like a blessing in disguise, a successful defense budget efficiency program would therefore accelerate long-awaited military reform.
In the wake of regional autonomy, local governments need to be involved in providing defense funds.
National defense, after all, is the responsibility of not only the central government, but the regional administrations and the whole nation.