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Jakarta Post

Used F-16 jets: A tradeoff between quality and quantity

  • Jon Keneddy Ginting

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, April 28, 2015   /  06:53 am

The F-16 jet fighter accident at Halim Perdanakusuma air base recently has again raised questions over the Indonesian Military'€™s (TNI) choice to acquire used weapon platforms to develop its capability.

Such a query makes sense despite the fact that the concern normally arises right after an accident happens. The TNI has long been exposed to a situation where it has to compromise on two primary issues regarding its capability development: combat effectiveness and force building.

With the defense budget accounting for less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for years, as against the current '€” and growing '€” defense and security issues, this tradeoff has posed a constant problem to Indonesian and TNI leaders.

Taking the latest accident as an example, a tradeoff had to be made by the TNI and the Indonesian Defense Ministry when in 2010 the US government offered to grant 24 F-16C/D block 25s that had served within the US Air Force (USAF), including in the Gulf War.

At about the same time, the TNI had just established its capability development blueprint known as Minimum Essential Force (MEF), describing what it will achieve in the 15-year timeframe of 2009 to 2024.

The MEF blueprint of the Indonesian Air Force (TNI AU) states that it will need one more fighter squadron to cover the western part of the motherland and also new fighters to replace its aging F-5 Tigers.

To deal with the first, the government was then forced to compromise between achieving a certain level of combat effectiveness and crew proficiency maintenance '€” as for so long the limited number of aircraft available had been raising an issue other than aerial protection capability: the degrading skill of the crew.

To cope with the combat effectiveness issue, new jet fighters would have been the choice. The TNI AU would have had combat planes with recent technology and capability that would have equaled, if not exceeded, that of our neighboring countries.

However, the quantity of jets acquirable with the defense budget provided would have been at most half a squadron, or six. With that small number, pilots would have to queue just to fly to maintain their flying skills, which is risky from the perspective of aviation safety.

The degrading skill of the crew was then another issue, requiring a different approach. This was what the Defense Ministry thought at that time, with some acceptable considerations.

The more frequently the pilots fly, the higher the skill they will achieve. The higher the skill pilots acquire, the better the combat capability they will bring into aerial warfare, should it happen.

So what about our aircraft capability compared with development of the capability surrounding us?

Well, the reason saying '€œthere will be no open, armed conflict within the next two or three decades'€ might have appeared acceptable, although it is against the global defense philosophy: '€œCi vis pacem para bellum,'€ meaning '€œIf you wish peace prepare for war.'€

The point is the TNI AU and the ministry were in a difficult situation at that time, but they had to choose and move forward.

With some US$400 million (which then increased by $200 million because of the depreciation of the rupiah against the US dollar in 2013), the ministry was exposed to complicated risks inherent in each choice it had to take: having a low quantity of aircraft to cover a very huge aerial territory and subsequently having a lack of crew flying skill on one hand and having a slightly lower capability level than some of our neighboring nations'€™ on the other hand.

Given the intelligence forecast of a low possibility of warfare in the region within the next decades, the ministry then preferred to bear the latter.

To be honest, there'€™s nothing wrong with the decision to take the grant. It was the best option among bad ones and after a comprehensive analysis, the ministry and the TNI AU deemed it was the most valid one.

Moreover, a grant doesn'€™t necessarily mean accepting rubbish or used aircraft. Indonesia spent some $600 million to upgrade the capability of those 24 F-16C/D block 25s so they reach a level of F-16C/D block 52+, by improving their structure through an Airframe Structural Integrity Program, which extends the lifetime of the airframe from 8,000 to 12,000 flying hours, improving systems like avionics, weaponry and many others.

In terms of capability, those F-16s are only slightly different from the Royal Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16 block 60+, although that is not an excuse, anyway.

Regarding the US grant, the TNI AU once operated Sikorsky S-58 helicopters granted by the US government in the 1980s until their retirement in 2009 because of the difficulty to find spare parts on the market.

A better example might be the Bell-47G '€œSoloy'€ helicopters granted by the Australian Army back in the 1980s, which are still serving today for the TNI AU'€™s new helicopter pilots at the Suryadarma air base in Kalijati, West Java.

So, rather than resorting to a blame game, which does not offer a solution, let'€™s be fair. The decision might seem unrealistic today, but it was valid at the time it was made.

As long as it was taken after a comprehensive study, it had to be the best solution for the problem at that time. Today we might still be exposed to the same problem, but with a different situation. We might take a different approach and will very likely end up with a different answer.

Pilots would have to queue just to fly to maintain their flying skills, which is risky from the perspective of aviation safety.

The writer works at the Defense Ministry. The views expressed are his own.

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