On December 18, Indonesian military (TNI) Commander Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto inaugurated a new base in Natuna Besar, the largest of several hundred small islands on the southern fringe of the South China Sea.
Tjahjanto stated that the base was meant to provide a “deterrence effect” against border threats. Analysts and press reports suggest that the TNI had China in mind, given the maritime incidents in the Natuna waters in recent years.
But deterring China is not the primary goal of the new base. For the TNI, the base—dubbed the Natuna Integrated TNI Unit—is a pioneering project to develop greater tri-service integration and joint operational capabilities and to relieve internal organizational pressures.
The defense ministry had planned to upgrade the Natuna facilities since the 2009 Strategic Defense Review process that gave birth to the Minimum Essential Force concept as well as the “Flash-point Defense” strategy built around threat contingencies in Indonesia’s outer islands.
When completed and fully operational, the unit would be the TNI’s first tri-service command since the 1980s, when the military eliminated the Regional Defense Command. The unit would eventually be a sprawling facility hosting composite battalions from the Army and Marines as well as numerous advanced platforms—from submarines, UAVs, and warships to fighter jets and various missile systems—and other supporting infrastructure.
While the TNI envisions the facility to be Indonesia’s future “Pearl Harbor”, it is still in its nascent stages. The Army launched the unit’s composite battalion in August last year initially with only two raider companies drawn from the existing local command. The Navy completed parts of its base and other facilities, but its Marines composite battalion is under development. The Air Force hangars and facilities also remain works in progress.
As the TNI gradually completes the Natuna unit, it also plans to establish other tri-service integrated units in Saumlaki, Morotai, Biak, and Merauke as part of a larger eastern rebalance of the TNI’s force structure. Tjahjanto’s predecessor, General Gatot Nurmantyo, suggested these units on Indonesia’s strategic outer islands could form “aircraft carrier islands” capable of hosting the TNI’s joint war-fighting units independently of local and territorial commands.
These five joint units will form the backbone of the TNI’s new Joint Regional Defense Commands (Komando Gabungan Wilayah Pertahanan or Kogabwilhan). Like the New Order-era structure abolished in the 1980s, these commands will cover a wider geographic space than the integrated units but similarly independent of local commands.
While these plans might take another decade or more to complete, the Natuna unit will be an important test for the TNI leadership in preparing the necessary personnel, assets, and organizational infrastructure.
The Natuna unit will also pave the way for the other integrated units set to be developed in eastern Indonesia, close to the Timor Sea, Arafura Sea, Celebes Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.
Since the 1960s, most of the TNI’s forces have been concentrated in Java and the western part of the country to cover both internal security challenges as well as strategic vital sea lines of communication, including the Malacca Strait. While the 2004 TNI Law has mandated that military posture should be gradually re-oriented towards the border areas, concrete plans to rebalance the forces to eastern Indonesia only emerged in recent years.
Last year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo approved the establishment of the Third Infantry Division of the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command in South Sulawesi, the Navy’s Third Armada Command and the Third Marine Force (both in West Papua), and the Air Force’s Third Operational Command in Papua (see map below).
These force restructuring plans—from the eastern re-balancing to the joint capability development—were largely developed in the mid-2000s to accommodate the pressures of post-authoritarian military reform. Since then, budgetary concerns, civil-military politics, and arms procurement priorities have stalled the organizational plans.
But the growing severity of promotional logjams—too many officers but too few posts available—in recent years has jumpstarted these plans again. Annually between 2011 and 2017, the TNI had around 30 general-rank and 330 mid-rank officers (lieutenant colonels and colonels) waiting for any billet openings.
These challenges and others like them traditionally undermine the TNI’s organizational morale, dampen professionalism, and worsen intra-military conflicts. The new commands and integrated units thus could mitigate those concerns by opening up dozens of new mid- and high-ranking positions.
Taken together, the need to develop joint operational capabilities and relieve personnel management pressures are more clearly the drivers of the new Natuna unit, rather than an attempt to “deter China” alone.
Moreover, despite the high-profile nature of the maritime incidents with China over illegal fishing activities, Indonesian maritime law enforcement has clashed far more with its Southeast Asian neighbors than with China. Between 2007 and 2015, Indonesia detained 454 illegal fishing vessels from Vietnam, 116 from Thailand, and 91 from Malaysia—there were only 31 from China.
Finally, we should also consider another regional context for the Natuna unit: the Singapore-controlled Flight Information Region (FIR).
Singapore has managed the FIR around the Natuna and Riau airspace since 1946, when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) decided Singapore would be better able to administer the area in connection with its own FIR. The Jokowi administration has expressed its intention to eventually take over the FIR with ICAO approval. Speaker of the House Bambang Soesatyo also expressed support for this goal during his visit to the Natunas with Tjahjanto in April 2018. A fully-operational military unit in the Natunas will eventually be part of Indonesia’s discussion with Singapore over the future of the FIR.
China alone doesn’t explain the Natuna unit’s development. Organizational pressures and broader security challenges are more pertinent. Analysts should be cautious in assigning a “China motive” to anything that Indonesia does in connection with the South China Sea.