The Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto expressed interest to acquire a number of F-35As for the country’s air force. But his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper turned down the prospect and made a counteroffer by proposing a number of F-16 “Viper” fighters, the last version of Lockheed-Martin’s best-seller, instead.
Indonesia’s ambitious fighter fleet modernization
The acquisition of the F-35A was part of the (sometimes nebulous) plan of the Indonesian Air Force to renew its fighter fleet. Currently, the force flies a mix of around 50 F-16 A/Bs and C/Ds, along with about 10 Russian Su-27SKM and Su-30 fighters.
In 2018, Indonesia contemplated buying 11 Su-35 Flanker E fighters from Russia for about $1.14 billion. But due to financing problems, supposed to be based partly on the export of raw materials, the order seems to have stalled.
Additionally, the acquisition of Russian fighter jets could have muddied the relationship with the United States, an important trade partner for Indonesia. The island country could have exposed itself to sanctions, based on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Thus, the Lockheed Martin F-35A was seen as an alternative if the Russian order fell through.
But in July 2020, Indonesia’s fighter shopping list broke the news again when it appeared that Subianto had sent a letter to Austrian Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner to express his interest in acquiring 15 Eurofighter Typhoons that the Bundesheer was on the lookout to retire. In September 2020, Tanner said she was ready to move forward with the negotiations. The proposal is reportedly still being discussed.
The Indonesia Air Force will apparently not be able to add the F-35A to its collection in the near future. On November 2, 2020, the Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, Muhammad Lutfi, explained that Washington turned down the idea as it would take nine years to fulfill a possible order. Instead, the Southeast Asian country could acquire the F-16 in its latest variant called Viper. Alternatively, the F/A-18 Super Hornet could also be considered.
The news comes days after Indonesia refused to service the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft of the United States Navy patrolling the South China Sea area. The archipelago nation adopted a neutral stance in the contest of influence currently playing between China and the United States in Southern Asia. However, the aggressive attempts to modernize its fighter fleet could show underlying concerns. Indonesia possesses a few territories called the Natuna islands bordering the South China Sea that Beijing considers part of its national territory.