Sometimes, quantity is quality in itself. Quantification may convincingly indicate progress, especially before the prying eyes of one’s political leaders and the taxpayers to whom defense and military establishments must be held accountable. Great is thus the temptation to reduce naval modernization plans to a mere bean-counting exercise. Otherwise methodical and programmatic arms procurement plans quickly become numerical sound bites for ready consumption by the media and the general public.

Such is the context when Indonesian defense minister Prabowo Subianto in January claimed “that in 24 months we will have up to 50 warships.” His figure raised the eyebrows of many domestic and foreign observers alike. To the scrupulous, there is more to Prabowo’s claim than meets the eye. Scrutinizing Prabowo’s figure behind and beyond its numerical value becomes an imperative: what did he mean by “50 warships”? Why did he designate the year 2024 as the end timeframe? Did the figure include the warships already in operational service? Finally, do these warships include all types of naval vessels or just the major combatants, i.e. frigates, corvettes, and submarines?

The first thing to ask is whether the meaning of Prabowo’s claim was lost in translation. Absent from the English translation, for instance, is his qualification that the 50 warships will also be “combat-ready” (siap tempur). Semantics can also mislead. All of Indonesia’s commissioned naval vessels (as opposed to “naval boats”, Kapal Angkatan Laut or KAL) have the prefix “KRI’” for Kapal Perang Republik Indonesia, which literally means “Warship of the Republic of Indonesia.” The abbreviated term “KRI” is indeed a misnomer—it misconstrues all naval vessels, even those in mere supporting roles, as combatants. If this was the case, then what Prabowo said is already true now. The Indonesian Navy operates more than a hundred vessels, which quantitatively makes its fleet the largest in Southeast Asia. But since Prabowo had stated 2024 as his target, let’s assume that this was not the case.

While it is tempting to suspect Prabowo’s plan is related to his presidential bid in Indonesia’s 2024 national election, the 2024 target likely refers to Indonesia’s naval modernization blueprint adopted in 2005—the “Green-Water Navy 2024,” which the defense ministry had incorporated into its “Minimum Essential Force” (MEF) all-service modernization plan. The blueprint calls for a 274-ship navy divided into three components: striking (110), patrolling (66), and supporting forces (98). Despite the fact that Indonesia’s naval fleet has expanded since then, the total number of its new major combatants today is a far cry from its intended target. Consistent with Prabowo’s statement, the total number of new combatants based on MEF should approximate 50 hulls by 2024, including 22 frigates and corvettes, and 10 submarines. Since 2007, however, Indonesia has only commissioned nine new frigates and corvettes, and three submarines. If it has taken Indonesia more than a decade to realize this posture, then it is even less likely to bridge the shortfall within the next 24 months.

This is not to say that Indonesia’s naval posture will not expand. On the contrary, Prabowo has signed contracts or declared plans for additional major combatants from France, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. If realized entirely, the Indonesian navy would have up to 18 new frigates and corvettes, and 4 new submarines. The fleet could include eight Japanese Mogami-class frigates, two British Arrowhead 140 frigates, six Italian Bergamini (FREMM) frigates and two refurbished ex-Maestrale corvettes, and two to four French Scorpene submarines. They would bring Indonesia’s total fleet of new (or within 20 years of operational service) major combatants to 27 frigates and corvettes and 7 submarines, excluding the potential addition of 3 South Korean ex-Pohang corvettes. With the addition of old major combatants (about 23 in total), Prabowo’s figure would not be far off the mark.

But there is another possibility. While Indonesia cannot possibly end up with a fleet of 50 new major combatants in 2024, it could nonetheless achieve this posture if the domestically built fast attack craft (FAC) fleet is added to the tally. In fact, the expansion rate of Indonesia’s FAC fleet surpasses that of any of its major combatants. Since 2011, Indonesia has manufactured three new classes of FAC: the 250-ton Clurit, 460-ton Sampari, and 245/53-ton Klewang. Currently, the Navy operates eight Clurit, five Sampari and one Klewang, with plans to deploy a total of 18 and 4 of the latter two classes, respectively. The FAC provides a cost-effective solution to Indonesia’s “brown-water” naval responsibilities—coastal defense and security of strategic chokepoints, such as the Malacca Straits—that demand the service of small and agile platforms at affordable costs. Compared to the major combatants, the FAC’s simpler technological and mechanical designs allow Indonesia to sustain their lifecycles at local shipyards, which contributes to enhancing national defense “self-sufficiency”—a quintessential element in Indonesia’s strategy.

To what extent these FACs are true “combatants” is questionable, however. Despite successful firing tests, most of Indonesia’s FACs  might be fitted for, but not with, anti-ship guided missiles, which Indonesia is also not yet capable of manufacturing. With Indonesia reliant on external suppliers for arming the FACs, questions linger over their long-term sustainability, especially when geopolitics intercedes. The Clurit and Sampari, for instance, are armed with Chinese C-705 missiles and close-in weapon systems. U.S. CAATSA sanctions and Indonesia’s repeated maritime standoffs with China in the South China Sea might militate against Jakarta’s continued reliance on Beijing and Moscow for arms supplies, including Yakhont anti-ship missiles for the aged Ahmad Yani-class frigates. The Clurit and some Sampari could then end up as lightly armed naval “offshore patrol vessels,” instead of true naval combatants.

These geopolitical concerns may have partly motivated the navy to acquire Norway’s Kongsberg naval strike missiles (NSM) instead to arm the Klewang-class. Despite the loss of its 245-ton lead vessel in 2012, more orders for Klewangs could follow suit, beginning with the newly launched 53-ton KRI Golok. To be based on Bintan Island near Singapore, the Navy plans to deploy the Klewang in the South China Sea where it could patrol against both criminal maritime poaching and its geopolitical variant perpetrated by state-sanctioned maritime militias, especially that of China. Meanwhile, the navy has also raised the potential acquisition of up to 120 units of 33-ton “fast missile boats” to be armed with the NSM. Whether these boats are going to adopt an existing model, such as the Klewang, or an entirely new one is unclear.

With the full addition of the FAC and the planned major combatants, Indonesia could theoretically possess up to 50 new combatants by 2024, albeit with certain conditions and qualifications. Even with Prabowo’s intent to spend up to $125 billion on military modernization over the next 25 years, interceding factors—like inflation, CAATSA, Covid-19 and now, the war in Ukraine—have and could continue to upset pre-programmed plans. Military modernization—arms procurement especially—is intimately tied to geopolitical, financial, and other factors, which subjects it to constant updates and revisions. In Indonesia’s case, however, opportunistic whims may be reigning supreme. Admittedly, the immediacy of such factors is not unique to Indonesia. Neighboring Australia, for instance, scuttled its Attack-class submarine procurement, creating a diplomatic crisis with its supplier, France. A similar twist of fate could befall or bedevil Indonesia’s naval procurement plans, and should caution anyone to take Prabowo’s claim with a great pinch of salt.

About Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Associate Research Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.