Fighter jets are suddenly all the rage in south-east Asia
As geopolitical tensions ratchet up in the region, so are budgets for military spending – with state-of-the-art aircraft topping the shopping list for many countries.
Feb 18, 2022 – 11.56am
Singapore | Master Sergeant Joshua Forest and his colleagues from the US Air Force struck out at the Singapore Airshow this year. The space allotted to the two Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets they were guarding was in the far corner of the display field, a long walk in the tropical sun from the air-conditioned exhibition halls.
But Forest, a maintenance specialist, said many had made the trek. “Yep, we’ve had plenty of military folks come by. There’s a lot of interest in fighter jets in this part of the world. These countries are growing, they want to protect their trade and they have some security concerns.”
The United States Air Force F-35A Lightning II takes part in the static display during the Singapore Airshow 2022 at Changi Exhibition Centre in Singapore. AP
Australia is among the US allies that have F-35s in their fleets, along with South Korea and Japan. Singapore will follow soon. Thailand has also expressed an interest, though it’s not clear if Washington will allow that sale to go through or if Thailand’s defence ties with China will sink it.
Washington has cleared the way, however, for Indonesia to purchase Lockheed Martin F-15s, as south-east Asia’s largest country sets off on an aviation shopping spree. Last week the F-15 news came hot on the heels of confirmation Jakarta had inked a deal to buy Dassault Rafale fighter jets from France.
Across the region, military modernisation is looming large. Sending the F-35 jets for display in Singapore is thought to be part of Washington’s efforts to demonstrate that it understands, as new framework states, that China’s coercion and aggression “is most acute in the Indo-Pacific”. So too is Indonesia’s step up being framed in terms of China.
Of course there are other factors at play. Defence budgets paused during the pandemic are getting pumped back up again. The loss of the Indonesia’s TRI Nanggala submarine and all its crew in April last year brought the dangers of operating cold-war era machinery into sharp focus. As nations emerge from the pandemic, they are also linking defence spending to economic development.
But always, there’s China. Beijing accounts for 43 per cent of all regional defence spending in Asia, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which this week published its annual military budget update. China’s military modernisation is so pervasive, wrote IISS editor James Hackett, that it “provides a lens through which to examine regional states’ defence policies and capability development programs”.
“Much attention has focused on PLA activity near Taiwan, but south-east Asian countries are also feeling Chinese military pressure,” Hackett wrote.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, says south-east Asian countries are trying to catch up on long-nursed upgrade plans.
“They don’t want to be seen as falling behind. Some of these countries do have geopolitical animosities with China, or at least there is some sense of uncertainty regarding China’s rise, so modernising their military is seen as a form of insurance.”
In November, Indonesia’s navy announced the 1st Fleet Command headquarters would be moving from Jakarta to the Natuna Islands, where Indonesia has repeatedly faced up to Chinese incursions on its fishing grounds.
Now Jakarta has signed a contract with France for six Rafale fighters, with another 36 to come, and also has permission to buy 36 F-15s. There are still questions over funding. Last year Indonesia’s Defence Ministry suggested foreign loans would fund big ticket purchases, but no details have been released. However, the future direction seems clear, and it marks a sharp turnaround from previous plans.
A United States Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II takes part in an aerial display at the Singapore Airshow. AP
Replacing Indonesia’s fleet of ageing F-16s and Russian Sukhois has been in the works for many years, In early 2018, Indonesia announced a $US1.01 billion contract to buy 11 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters. In December Indonesia’s Air Force Chief Fadjar Prasetyo announced that “with a heavy heart we have to drop those plans”. He said this was due to budget constraints.
There was another influential factor, Koh notes. Washington had threatened to penalise Jakarta if it took delivery of the new Russian planes by using the Countering America’s Adversaries Though Sanctions Act.
These sanctions are not uniformly applied. Some in the Biden administration were ready to make an exception for Indonesia, but Jakarta appears to have decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
“Indonesia’s defence relationship with the United States is on the upswing and Jakarta didn’t want to jeopardise that”, Koh says.
Another factor in the deal is the Indonesians had a very keen seller in France, with that country in the market for a new regional partnership after Australia dumped plans to buy its submarines.
Florence Parly, French Minister of the Armed Forces, was personally involved and the two countries have also indicated Jakarta could end up buying two Scorpene submarines from Paris further down the line.
Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has pointed out Indonesia will pay $US8.1 billion for 42 jets. Six years ago, India agreed to pay $US9.6 billion for 36 jets. Even though the eye-watering cost of fighter jets does diminish as more are built, Indonesia appears to have got a good price.
Indonesia remains proudly non-aligned but there are always ebbs and flows. Since Prabowo became defence minister in late 2019 he has influenced a tilt to the US while advancing his political goals, observers say.
“Prabowo is the X-factor here,” says Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at IISS in Singapore. “He’s US-trained. He’s more mindful of the China issue than his predecessors. He has clout, and he has still wants to be president.”
Prabowo has succeeded in getting a significant set of acquisitions over the line in a short period of time – no small feat in Indonesia, where defence procurement plans have frequently become unstuck.
However, Graham believes the new fighter jets won’t boost Indonesia’s defensive capabilities as much as they could have because of the “rainbow approach” to acquisition.
“From a logistics point of view, maintaining Russian, French and American planes will be a nightmare. It will inevitably eat away at the serviceability of these aircraft which means they are going to fly less often.”
Moreover, there is still no sign of any regional alliance among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There’s no evidence ASEAN is moving to co-ordinated defence at any level. It’s all done on a strictly national basis. That limits the efficiency when you are looking at south-east Asia as the much smaller party trying to defend itself.”
Not every country has advanced. “There are some countries, such as Malaysia, which are not moving ahead with modernisation. It has no replacement for its rapidly ageing fighters and is emerging as the weak link in the South China Sea,” says Graham.
“Last year the Chinese flew very close to the Malaysian coastline in a large formation of transport aircraft. The only planes the Malaysians could send up were old Hawk aircraft that were not built to deal with a country of China’s capabilities,” Graham says.
Malaysia’s Defence Chief General Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang stopped by the Singapore Airshow this week. Also on the delegate list were military chiefs from around the region and the US Commander of Pacific Air Forces, General Kenneth Wilsbach; the RAAF’s Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld; and German Air Force Chief Generalleutnant Ingo Gerhatz.
Attendance at the biennial show was a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic, but there were still plenty of military personnel around. Some were helping on the sell side, some were guarding planes, others simply nosing around.
On the Australia stand in the exhibition hall, Air Vice-Marshal (retired) Gavin Turnbull and Navy Commodore (retired) Ian Middleton were on the hustle, using their networks to put potential buyers in front of the companies pitching under the Team Defence Australia banner.
Turnbull, a former fighter jet pilot, first came to Singapore in 1985. Middleton captained frigates that “came through here all the time”, he says. His last job involved travelling through Asia while on exchange with the United States Pacific Command. “We know a lot of people,” Turnbull says.