Commentary: Using Drones to Project Indonesia's Maritime Power

BY :JERRY INDRAWAN

OCTOBER 10, 2016

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as "drones," has become popular in recent times. Drones are increasingly being used by armed forces due to the rise of asymmetric warfare in modern combat. Nowadays, the revolution in defense technology has created weapons that are more sophisticated and automated, or unmanned.

Responding to the global development of weapons technology, especially in view of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's vision of a global maritime axis, the Indonesian Military (TNI) must have drones at its disposal.

In the implementation of maritime policy, drones are the most effective means to conduct surveillance in the vast Indonesian waters. Jokowi has an ambition to make Indonesia strong again at sea, such as during Bung Karno's era, or even to the likes of the ancient Majapahit and Srivijaya kingdoms, whose maritime fleets were well known in the region.

In modern times, drones would be a favorable choice for Indonesia, because they can be used to strengthen the country's bargaining position internationally. In his inaugural speech two years ago, the president uttered the slogan "Jalesveva Jayamahe," which means "on the sea we are victorious." It shows that Jokowi's policy will be aimed towards maritime issues.

Some classic studies of sea power and politics show that the world powers largely gained their strength through control of the seas. Vicissitude in world leadership is also associated with a shifting of power distribution in the sea. This is what Jokowi is after; a change of global political constellation, in order to compete and beat major maritime powers such as the United States and China. History has proven that we were able to do that, so why not repeat it?

Rise of Warfare Technology

The revolution in military affairs is no longer limited to alteration in a war paradigm, from man only to man and machine, but also be unmanned machine. The use of drones marks the world's entry into what the writer called, "robot civilization." We often see it in Hollywood movies, such as Terminator, Oblivion and Star Trek. We need to know as well that drones in this context are not just referring to surveillance drones, but also armed drones. Whoever controls this technology can change the international system, as the regulation has not yet been determined.

It is difficult to know how many states already use drone technology due to its confidential nature, especially armed drones. Several countries believed to have armed drones refuse to disclose information for national security reasons. Although, some vividly exhibit their drone capability in combating terrorism, or mostly just for prestige. Until now, only the United States, Israel and Britain have been using armed drones overtly in their engagements.

According to data from US-based aerospace and defense company the Teal Group, in addition to Israel and the United States, China and Iran are countries that already have the ability to launch armed drones. Furthermore, two nuclear countries – India and Pakistan – have also begun to develop their drone technology to deal with terrorist threats on home soil.

Meanwhile, Australia, Japan and Singapore, which are our neighboring countries, already have unarmed surveillance drones, which could also be used for military purposes. For example, Japan uses it to keep tabs on China's movements around the disputed Senkaku Islands. In terms security and defense, a country's possession of drones could trigger suspicions from other countries, especially neighboring ones. Based on the principle of a security dilemma, a country would feel threatened if other countries improve their military capabilities.

From an optimistic perspective, if Indonesia has the technological capabilities to obtain and operate drones, especially armed ones, we can imagine how uneasy Singapore, Malaysia and Australia would be. Indonesia would be a dominant force in the region. The balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, especially within Southeast Asia, would be different with our maritime superiority. Even though it might lead to military conflict, the balance of power in the region will be preserved. No countries would have the audacity to start a fight and risk total war.

However, from a rather pessimistic point of view, the use of drones is more complicated than it appears. Drones are not just small unmanned aircraft. Modern drones require more than just a "pilot" who controls it remotely. The use of drones involves sophisticated communications technology, complete satellite access, complex machinery systems and accurate data. Not every country has these abilities.

Countries that have mastered drone technology are those who already have state-of-the-art military technology, such as nuclear weapons and communications satellites.

Therefore, it is obvious that when the United States, Israel and Britain decided to develop this technology for their national interests, they already had the necessary supporting components. Using drones are not just a retail purchase, especially if you want to use it for security and defense. Indonesia's defense industry is still not able to support the use of this powerful tool, especially on a limited defense budget.

The paradigm of the Indonesian defense industry unfortunately is still pragmatic. We prefer to purchase weapons systems, or alutsista, from other countries instead of self-producing it, such as the procurement of Sukhoi fighter jets and Leopard main battle tanks.

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's regime brought a significant increase in the Indonesian defense budget, from Rp 21 trillion ($1.6 billion) in 2004, up to Rp 104 trillion next year, according to the 2017 draft state budget. However, if Jokowi wishes to develop drone technology, our defense budget must increase to at least half of the current US defense budget, which was around $601 billion last year. We have a long way to go.

The president should also remember that the use of drones is merely to maintain a nation's sovereignty, especially in the maritime sector, and that it will not be used to apply the concept of absolute security, as implemented by the United States in its war against terror. Indonesia is a peaceful country that will preserve its free and active foreign policy doctrine, with the use of force only when necessary. That's why we need the drones!

Jerry Indrawan is a lecturer in international relations at Paramadina University. He can be reached at jerry_indrawan18@yahoo.co.id.

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