The TNI Story, 75 years of defending the nation

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Indonesian Navy Fleet Command (Koarmada I) during a combat exercise at Singkep island, Riau. (27/07) (Photo: Rayi Gigih/IO)

 IO – October 5, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) will commemorate its 75th anniversary. It is an age that suggests maturity, wisdom and a long history, alongside the founding of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Beginning from the formation of the People’s Security Body (BKR) shortly after the proclamation of independence, based on a Government Declaration dated October 5, 1945, BKR was transformed into the People’s Security Army (TKR). On January 7, 1946, TKR was later renamed the People’s Salvation Armed Forces. Then on January 26, 1946, it was further changed into the Republic of Indonesia’s Army (TRI). 

At that time, besides TRI, there were also other militia forces active across Indonesia. To unite the armed forces, President Soekarno issued a decision to fuse TRI with these militia forces into the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). The effort succeeded and was officiated on June 3, 1947. 

Since 1959, October 5 has been designated as Armed Forces Day, currently known as the Day of the Indonesian National Armed Forces. It is a non-holiday national day stipulated by the Indonesian government through Presidential Decree No. 316/1959, dated December 16, 1959 to commemorate the anniversary of the Indonesian armed forces. 

In the first and second decades, TNI was preoccupied with efforts to uphold independence and consolidate its organization, as well as to defend the country’s unity from various rebellions and separatist movements across several regions. In the span of this period, a plethora of intrigues and internal conflicts afflicted the TNI, especially during the parliamentary democracy era. In line with Presidential Decree issued on July 5, 1959, proclaiming the return to the 1945 Constitution – a move supported by Army Chief of Staff Abdul Haris Nasution – the organization of TNI was in reasonably good shape. A number of reorganization and consolidation efforts were carried out successfully. This took place despite TNI being preoccupied with operations to liberate West Irian, followed by a period of political and military “confrontation” with newly-established Malaysia. 

The years 1961-1965 were a glorious period for the TNI. Fully supported by the Soviet Union, Indonesia was able to build a massive military force. Indonesia’s primary weapon system was known to be the largest in Southeast Asia. The USSR provided the Indonesian Navy with at least 17 battleships. Among them was Sverdlov-class cruisers with a displacement of 16,640 tons, which significantly eclipsed the Sigma class corvettes the country operates today. Indonesia also had 12 Whiskey-class submarines and 2 guardian vessels. In the air, Indonesia’s firepower was no less impressive, with around a hundred aircraft: 20 supersonic jet fighters, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21s, 10 supersonic MiG-19s, 49 MiG-17s and 30 MiG-15s. 

Unfortunately, the country’s entanglement in one confrontation after another led to a deteriorating economic and political crisis. Eventually, after the September 30, 1965 tragedy (seen as a failed rebellion), the “Old Order” regime of President Soekarno collapsed, as General Suharto stepped in and assumed power, leading the era known as the “New Order”; the military organization soon underwent another administrative change, with the formation of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI), which combined TNI service with the Indonesian Police (Polri). ABRI was led by a Commander and each TNI branch was led by a Chief of Staff. 

Although TNI was never completely neutral in politics from the time of its foundation, it was during the New Order that the military truly dominated Indonesian politics and government. Through the “dual function” doctrine, which was regarded as an extreme manifestation of TNI’s “Middle Way” concept introduced by General Abdul Haris Nasution in the 1950s, military personnel were heavily involved in both government and the economy. While not having voting rights, ABRI was deeply entrenched in the House of Representatives (DPR) and the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). Members of their own faction were appointed and sworn in without having to go through elections. 

During this time, a number of strategic SOEs were developed, in a professional manner. One of the goals was to meet the increased need for defense hardware. These SOEs worked with a number of foreign manufacturers through licensing, technology transfer and joint production, to fulfill various military needs, such as firearms and ammunition, transport aircraft, patrol boats and communication equipment. 

The New Order regime depended on the military to preserve and grow its power. To enforce political stability, Soeharto often used ABRI to react against anyone deemed to be in opposition to its policies. Depriving people of civil liberties, neglecting human rights protection and manipulation of elections were the regime’s instruments to legitimize its power. The TNI became omnipresent, ABRI was truly dominant and hegemonic. 

Toward the late 1980s, heightened awareness and resistance against the New Order regime began to take shape, reaching a crescendo in the crises of 1998. Soeharto stepped down, the New Order regime melted away and a reform-minded agenda was launched. One of the main aspirations was to transform the military. The dual function of ABRI was eliminated and its socio-political domination curbed. The function of the military, which was previously very pervasive, was curtailed. Polri was separated from the military and the era of a dominant ABRI faded away. 

Reformasi: Toward a Professional Military 

Most of the interventions leading to coup d’état attempts by military personnel around the world are not only fueled by personal interests or ambition to rule but also for reasons similar to why people elsewhere crave political power, namely, to increase the ability of the public sector to solve longstanding plights of their suffering nations. Or, put it simply, to enforce the basic requirement for political stability, without which there can be no progress. 

Following the demise of the New Order, law enforcement and the defense of sovereignty were split up through three separate regulations, namely Law No.2/2002 on the Indonesian National Police, Law No.3/2002 on State Defense, and Law No.34/2004 on the Indonesian National Armed Forces. A democratic movement and civilian power grew as the role of the military in the political arena in Indonesia diminished. 

TNI reverted to its role as a tool to safeguard state sovereignty, with the main task of carrying out military combat and non-combat operations. The spirit of reform has led to the desire to establish TNI as a professional military that is no longer concerned with matters outside its main duty, subject to civilian supremacy, democracy and human rights. TNI’s political rights were taken away, its dual function doctrine was eliminated and now the President must seek approval from the House before appointing a TNI Commander. 

15 years after the fall of the New Order regime, although a number of elements of the TNI reform agenda have yet to be completed, the involvement and assistance of the TNI in matters outside the defense and state sovereignty domain is not an easy task. The role of TNI is carefully regulated, so it doesn’t appear as dominant and hegemonic as in the past. 

The problem is that it is difficult for the public to view the role of the TNI in an objective manner. It is also difficult for the TNI to keep distance from governing authorities. In a similar vein, it is difficult for the authorities to avoid the temptation of using TNI to “secure their interests”. Harold Crouch even observed that since its inception the Indonesian military has never really embraced professional military values. 

A military force born out of revolution or the struggle for independence usually takes on a distinctive identity, not only as soldiers, but also as warriors. Being involved in politics is the manifestation of the warrior “instinct” to save and defend the country. With it typical solid and neat organization, the military has always been able to appear as a more ready agent of modernization and an entity necessary to maintain social order. This is the kind of asset that civilian authority does not have.  

TNI, on the other hand, is not initially equipped with an understanding of the limitations of its position and function. 

The “praetorian” military is more likely to be involved in politics or business rather than defense matters. This group likes to politicize social forces around it. They assume their non-military roles mainly because of system instability and the failure of civilian leaders to ensure compliance with political norms and processes. 

The military will not interfere in political affairs or expand its non-military roles if the system is “deemed” to be well-functioning. It is marked by the efforts of civilian leaders to control the military by politicizing them and bringing them closer to politicians who either support or oppose the government, especially in parliament and political parties. 

A modern praetorian force signifies a military that tends to intervene and has the potential to dominate a country’s political system. The military has an interest in preserving its autonomy from civilian intervention to broader interests in the form of welfare and economic issues, as well as to make up for the failure of a political system managed by civilian leaders. Ulf Sundhaussen defined this as a trigger for pretorian military involvement in politics. 

Politicization and military intervention in sociopolitical affairs can create or result in a “praetorianistic society”, namely, a condition in which political institutions are ineffective in responding to changes or in formulating policies and political actions. The establishment of praetorianism is supported by political conditions where there is a center and a periphery among political forces. Weak institutions and barriers hinder political forces from establishing political structures. Weak and ineffective political parties and civilian leaders will resort to seeking support from or intervening in the military. 

Radical praetorians are often born out of oligarchic militaries who interact closely with landowners, capital owners, or religious / community leaders. Its leaders are nationalist and reformist officers from the middle class. They usually crave modernization and economic development. Radical praetorian militaries usually form alliances with professional and intellectual groups, but only infrequently with labor groups. This type, with its hegemonic ability, gives birth to a corporatist government, one favored by intellectuals, bureaucrats and politicians who seek rent, as we frequently witnessed during the New Order era. 

But in recent years, a “Pandora’s box” seems to be opening. The glorification of military figures as “superheroes” has reemerged. Past roles have often lulled TNI into a sense of self-pride, strength, identity and excessive knowledge. This contradicts with the ideal of reformation, where one of the important agendas was to restore the original function of the military, while strengthening its role accordingly. Instead of projecting the power of governance, civilian leaders often feel helpless in the face of military superiority and its myth of heroism and pioneering spirit, a story built up over decades. 

Jokowi administration’s agenda and homework 

At the outset of his administration in 2014, President Joko Widodo expressed his views regarding the development of the defense sector. First, fulfillment of defense needs, including matters related to soldiers’ welfare and the provision of defense equipment. Second, an independent defense sector that is not reliant on imported hardware and systems. Third, defense as not only an effort to achieve minimum standards of essential force but must one that can also be aimed at building the TNI as a force to be reckoned with. Fourth, championing state defense and security as an integral aspect of a comprehensive security approach. 

If we look closely, these points of view show that President Joko Widodo’s first administration was still focused on building strength. In fact, the defense posture of a country is seen through at least three main aspects, namely strength, capability and deployment. Efforts to build strength are focused on three main areas, namely, modernization of defense equipment, institutional strengthening (read: expansion of the organization), and budgeting. 

Modernization of primary weapon systems is more or less influenced by the fact that there have been a series of military aircraft incidents, a number of elderly battleships and combat equipment, along with the slow detection of foreign attempts to penetrate our sea and airspace due to inferior radar capability. 

Institutional strengthening was driven by the plan to change TNI organizational structure with proposals for a position of Deputy Commander, the establishment of a Special Operations Command (Koopssus) and a number of validation agendas, organizational expansion or unit development, both in the services and Headquarters. In this case, the development of TNI is considered as not yet reflecting the direction of government policy to become a maritime axis. Policy-making is seemingly still based more on political considerations and power distribution than strategic aspects. 

Meanwhile, on the budgeting front, other than the allocation that appear large but is actually thinly spread, there are still debates ongoing regarding the portion and budget allocation between the three branches of service, as well as between the need to bolster primary weapon systems and support routine expenditures. On the other hand, budget problems are also blamed for the rampant commercialization of assets and the still unfulfilled promise to raise standards of soldier welfare. 

Asset commercialization within TNI is not merely driven by the motivation to seek personal gain. Discussions and dialogues with a number of field officers clarified their complaints, which were more or less about how to raise funds, so that activities can be carried out as planned, even though the budget is insufficient. 

Thus, fundraising, commonly referred to as “tactical funds”, “command funds” or “attention funds” is actually a manifestation of the inadequacy of the state financial system to meet military budget needs. Many activities cannot be carried out as specified by the nomenclature, type and description with the system used by the Ministry of Finance. This includes, for example, covert, emergency and urgent operational acts. 

Many budget items in reality cannot reach a tactical level in the field. As a result, leaders in the field have to be inventive. They have to be creative in seeking additional funds so that activities can still be carried out properly without having to tamper with budget items – which could later lead to legal problems. 

On one hand, this is a move to protect their career. They fear that they might be considered incapable of carrying out assigned duties and responsibilities. Moreover, this practice seems to have become a tradition because their seniors or predecessors were also engaged in. On the other hand, they do not want to get into trouble by using budget funds for purposes other than those stipulated, which will create irregularities in the financial report. This problem, of course, requires a solution. There needs to be a breakthrough in the state financial system in order to meet the actual needs on the ground. At the same time, we also need to put in place an effective monitoring mechanism so that budget inefficiency can be avoided. 

What about the aspect of capability? The dominant issue of primary weapon systems modernization has sidelined the issue of soldier competence. Character building and specialization development should receive serious and proportional attention if we are to build a respected military/defense force. Meanwhile, we often hear about plans for organizational expansion and new unit development, which of course will require more personnel. This would, of course, imply significant funding. Neglecting the capability aspect means that we maintain a large military force but with less-than-ideal capability. This is bad for our defense posture. 

To develop defense capability, a policy debate should revolve around which of these should receive higher budget allocation: formative education (Diktuk), which aims to increase strength or specialized education to increase individual capacity and troop deployment in the form of training and exercises intended to consolidate and increase the ability of units. Of course, strength is crucial, but without maintenance and capacity building, it is a liability on our national security and sovereignty. 

In the aspect of deployment, since 2014 there have been many deployments and shows of force by our military. In the air, there were a series of interceptions and forced landings of a number of foreign aircraft that illegally entered our airspace. At sea, Indonesian Navy ships chased down and took firm action against foreign ships illegally fishing in our waters. On land, a number of military operations other than war (MOOTW) was held in support of various government programs and policies. 

The current perception of threats to our national security and sovereignty, primarily non-military in nature and of foreign origin, indeed demand readiness to face non-conventional war, such as proxy, asymmetric and hybrid wars against “non-state actors”, as well as international crime syndicates. We also have Law No.23/2019 on Management of National Resources for State Defense, which provides a legal umbrella for the preparation and mobilization of all potential human, natural and artificial resources, as well as national infrastructure in facing various threats and crises, while ensuring the security of the Indonesian people. 

The military’s participation in emergency response operations, as well as in disaster relief efforts, deserves appreciation, the latest being its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The involvement of TNI in handling emergencies, especially those concerning safety of the state, is inevitable. TNI has been involved since the beginning, including the mission to evacuate Indonesian citizens from Wuhan, managing their quarantine in Natuna, followed by handling the crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship and many more, including the involvement of the Gatot Soebroto Army Hospital and a number of hospitals owned by the TNI as well as the management of the emergency Covid-19 hospitals at Wisma Atlet Kemayoran and Galang Island. 

However, the involvement of TNI in activities not directly related to its main duties and functions or MOOTW in accordance with Article 7 Paragraph 2 of Law No.34/2004 should be reviewed carefully and comprehensively. Their deployment needs to limited by clear, well-defined criteria. 

Apart from upgrading of our primary weapon systems, a number of issues still need to be resolved, including the temptation to get involved in areas that are not directly related to their main duties and functions. Then there is the matter of personnel development related to increasing the number of military officers who have changed their status to State Civil Apparatus (ASN), which carries a longer term of office (60 years in echelon two and above) and have better career opportunities. This is quite dangerous, because Reformation mandated that TNI is no longer “employed” or carrying out any socio-political function. Don’t let this change of status becomes a new modus operandi for military hegemony. 

Another crucial problem is the public expectation of stronger law enforcement within the TNI, where accountability is still a problem. Military court reform must continue to be encouraged so that the reputation of the military can be upheld, just as trials for crimes can be realized, human rights violations can be prosecuted, budget leaks can be reduced and the potential for conflict with the Police can be avoided. 

Some experts say that our primary weapons system is outdated and needs to be revamped. Old equipment gives rise to vulnerability. This opinion is only partially accurate. The factor of age is not the most important one. There are many examples where newly-procured defense equipment is quickly damaged. On the other hand, there is defense equipment that is more than half a century old but is still perfectly functional. The key is in maintenance, which must be carried out in accordance with standards and procedures that meet safety and security aspects. 

While new equipment is easier and less expensive to maintain, that doesn’t mean our problem is only in procurement, but also in maintenance. In the Indonesian Air Force, for example, many argue that perhaps only Air Squadron 17 maintenance can be 100 percent trusted because it includes the presidential and other VIP aircraft. 

To this day, corruption is still a big problem in our country, and it undermines almost all aspects of life. Corruption threatens our national security and sovereignty and puts the safety of the people, both civilian and military, at stake. In the management of military assets, the potential for corruption occurs from lowest level in the procurement of nuts and bolts to the more lucrative, e.g. fuel markup, illegal transportation of passengers and goods, to compromised quality and quantity of asset maintenance. 

The government needs to strictly regulate the management of assets in the military, including how it is used by other parties. Not that such should be forbidden, but there needs to be regulations to prevent mismanagement, abuse, and use for personal gain or the benefit of other parties. It is also important to determine whether funds obtained are non-tax state revenue that must be deposited in the state treasury or not, including a monitoring mechanism. 

In this context, the state must firmly prohibit irresponsible “moonlighting” practices. If this still happens, investigate them thoroughly and make sure the guilty party is punished. If not, the ability and preparation to enforce national sovereignty and security will be put at risk. 

Big missions amid limitations 

Starting his second term, while attending the Defense Ministry Leadership Meeting in January, President Joko Widodo presented several instructions to Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. First, TNI rank and file must work hard to strengthen and protect the sovereignty of the country and be reminded of the importance of having the capability to overcome complex threats that have implications for national defense. Second, use the budget appropriately, so that spending on the defense sector is primarily for investment and development of strategic industries in the country. 

The modernization of primary weapon systems, directed toward self-reliance, should be appreciated. However, thus far this effort is still complicated by issues of priority, specifications, standardization and synchronization, which can result in ineffectiveness, malfunction or suboptimal use of defense equipment. Not to mention weaknesses in maintenance, which may lead to accidents or wasteful and unnecessary expenses. 

The question then is: Do we have sufficient capacity and resources? PT PAL has the capacity. They already have several frigate and submarine development projects. PINDAD can meet most of the needs for individual weapons, ammunition, tactical vehicles and personnel transport. Likewise, PT DI has also seen success with the development of propeller planes and the assembly of helicopters. 

Then what is the problem? It is still the high cost production. Why? Because most of what is produced at PT DI, PT PAL, and PINDAD are licensed products. If we are able to pay for a license, production can be continued; otherwise, if the license expires or is not for some reason extended, then production will cease. What about a non-licensed product? Not all components and spare parts are covered by licenses. Some are imported. 

In the past, the three defense equipment manufacturers were part of what is known as a “strategic industry”. The priorities at that time were not profit nor efficiency. They were heavily subsidized and inefficient, because the priority was more on efforts to increase the capacity and capability of our defense diplomacy to maintain influence in the region and to play a more significant role in the international arena. Ambitious indeed. But most objectives were met. 

As previously mentioned, our domestic production is still high-cost. This has implications for the government’s purchasing power. In fact, there is locally-made defense equipment that the government itself cannot afford because of its price; it is then exported. For the export market, we also cannot readily claim that it is a success. It must also be seen whether spending by other countries is really based on needs – which we can see from the degree to which our products meet their needs – or are they just transactions to increase quality of bilateral cooperation (defense diplomacy). So they buy our products, even though for them they are not fitting, or essential. 

In other words, development of domestic defense equipment is not to be considered a sprint, but rather a marathon. If we are serious, of course the first thing that must be done is to create a blueprint or roadmap and implement it consistently and in a synchronized manner, from upstream to downstream. We already have a Defense Industry Policy Committee to bring together and facilitate stakeholders in its formulation. 

On the Defense Ministry side, improvements must also be made. Improve regulations, for example, on the distribution and agency of imported products, restructure the budget by bolstering research and education spending, improve negotiation skills in defense offset schemes when procuring defense equipment from overseas (technology transfer and production sharing, for example), and most importantly, build capacity to prevent the potential recurrence of ill practices in the management of budgets and activities, whether cost-based or otherwise. 

Additionally, Covid-19 has exerted a tremendous impact on various sectors. Not long ago, the Defense Ministry revealed that they were making adjustments, so that future defense strategies also included potential biological threats and disease outbreaks. This demonstrates optimism that the defense sector can contribute to the effort to ward off non-conventional threats like this in the future. 

In Law No. 23/2018 on Management of National Resources for National Defense, potential threats–military, non-military and hybrid – have been mentioned, even including disease outbreaks. But unfortunately, this has not been followed through with by a more detailed formulation, compared to conventional warfare. 

Surely, we must agree on the need to pay greater attention to the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. Again, this is actually not something new or being overlooked before. But for decades, decision makers have never given priority to this matter. They are only treated as material for studies and discussions in educational institutions, and ended up as a pile of academic papers. 

They are more interested in socio-political and territorial issues, which tend to view threats as coming from inside the country. But ironically, at the same time, we even allow the operation of NAMRU-2, a biomedical research laboratory unit belonging to the US Navy, in Jakarta for years until finally then Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari raised the issue of suspected illegal and dangerous activities in the laboratory. 

This is just an illustration for how serious we should be in developing defense research related to biological threats, as many other countries have done. On the other hand, we are aware that future threats will be closely related to technological development. But the problem is again a classic one – the lack of budget! The largest portion of the defense budget is allocated not for the procurement of primary weapon systems but for routine expenditures or personnel expenses such as for soldiers’ salaries, stationary and other administrative items. 

Let alone talking about technology spending, we still pay little attention to research, which forms a basis for the development of a strong and competitive domestic defense industry. What is our defense research spending? Very small, only Rp2.49 trillion, money which still needs to be shared among other defense industry and technology development programs. 

Finally, Indonesia must also improve its ability to negotiate technology transfer as soon as possible because this is the quickest path to bolster our domestic defense industry. What is done by PT PAL must be recognized as an example of how we are to move forward. Although there are still shortcomings. For a country being the largest archipelago in the world, strengthening our maritime capabilities is a sensible priority. If PT PAL can meet the country’s needs for shipbuilding, that is a good investment, especially if this endeavor can involve more ancillary industries. Now is the time to enhance and improve Indonesia’s maritime industrial base to meet the challenges today and into the foreseeable future.

We must not lose hope, let alone hope to make TNI and Indonesia stronger. Happy Anniversary, TNI! (Khairul Fahmi)

Khairul Fahmi is a military observer. He graduated from the Faculty of Political Science, Airlangga University. He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies.