The Platform


Indonesian military planners face a dilemma. Do they need a large unyielding costly navy when a smaller nimble force is better suited for Indonesia’s needs?

Indonesia, a nation predominantly defined by its maritime landscape, finds nearly 70 percent of its territory engulfed by water, dwarfing the land area to a mere 30 percent. By the lexical definition provided by the Indonesian Language Dictionary (KBBI), ‘maritime’ is intimately connected to the sea, entwining Indonesia’s very essence with oceanic endeavors and commerce. This profound connection has steered the course of its history and development. Given the cornucopia of maritime resources within its domain—encompassing energy to minerals—it’s no surprise that a substantial segment of Indonesians, particularly the fishing communities, anchor their livelihoods in maritime industries. Hence, Indonesia’s maritime identity stands undisputed.

In light of this, a robust naval force emerges as a cornerstone for safeguarding Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty. The current standing of the Indonesian Navy is impressive, clinching the fourth spot in global strength as listed by the World Directory of Modern Military Warships (WDMMW). With a fleet consisting of 243 naval combatants, including submarines, frigates, corvettes, minehunters, patrol vessels, and amphibious units, Indonesia’s naval achievements are noteworthy. Yet, one ponders if this fleet is sufficient to ensure the nation’s territorial integrity.

This reflection gains urgency in the face of escalating maritime sovereignty breaches by external forces. Incidents in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal paint a picture of a porous maritime border, penetrated with ease by foreign entities such as Vietnamese fishers, Chinese patrols, and displaced Rohingya. These events prompt a reassessment of the Indonesian naval force’s efficacy in guarding sovereign waters.

Identifying the frailties of Indonesia’s maritime defenses, the Indonesian National Resilience Institute (Lemhannas RI) cites a gamut of underlying issues: from stagnant budgetary allocations to a nascent industrial ecosystem, limited research and development, and the challenges posed by economic scale. The enormity of Indonesian waters further complicates these issues, stretching the Navy’s capacity to maintain a vigilant watch over its jurisdiction. The recent political spotlight, cast by presidential candidate Anies Baswedan, on the necessity for blue-water operational capabilities in the Indonesian Navy adds another layer to this strategic discourse.

A ‘blue-water navy’ is typically recognized as a maritime force with the prowess to operate across the vast, deep waters of global oceans. This concept, as utilized by the UK, underscores a navy’s potential to embark on maritime expeditions with global reach. Definitions may vary, but the core requirement is the ability to exert control over substantial maritime expanses. The United States Defense Security Service delineates a blue-water capable navy as one that undertakes sustained operations in open ocean waters, often characterized by the inclusion of aircraft carriers, enabling power projection far beyond the nation’s shores, with smaller blue-water forces deploying fewer ships for limited periods.

To be deemed a blue-water navy signifies a strategic breadth, a capability to operate across distant waters, sometimes globally, ensuring defense against subsurface, surface, and aerial threats. Moreover, such a force is supported by extensive logistical networks, epitomized by the capacity for at-sea replenishment—an emblematic feature of blue-water ambitions.

The hierarchy of naval power classifies navies into three categories: brown, green, and blue. A brown-water navy operates in confined, shallow waters such as rivers and coasts, using small, lightly armed vessels for patrol and reconnaissance. A green-water navy, on the other hand, patrols national jurisdictional waters, including open seas and archipelagos, with a fleet of larger, more heavily armed ships to counter external threats.

Indonesia’s naval strength, while formidable, does not yet meet the blue-water benchmark set by nations equipped with aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and cruisers. Presently, it aligns more closely with a green-water navy, which is apt for an archipelagic state.

Should Indonesia aspire to elevate its navy to blue-water status, it would require not only significant international interests to warrant such an expansion but also a compelling justification for the fleet. To date, Indonesia’s international endeavors, such as the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy missions and the Sudanese evacuation of 2023, provide historical precedent for the utility of such capabilities.

In my analysis, Indonesia’s strategic interests may not necessarily align with the pursuit of a blue-navy power. Instead, a focus on fortifying coastal defenses, particularly through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, could be more pertinent. While this may limit long-range power projection, it would cement Indonesia’s prowess in defending its territorial waters, effectively deterring incursions by other blue-water forces. The paramount objective remains the maintenance of sovereignty, not the projection of military might across the seas.

Mochammad Jose Akmal is currently an undergraduate student majoring in government science at Universitas Diponegoro. His academic pursuits centre around areas such as security, online extremism, cybersecurity, social media behaviour, history, and international policy.