While the Indonesian government is snubbing the Singapore Airshow this week, the country’s main military manufacturer is using it as an opportunity for a coming-out party, with staff members in orange flight suits courting potential buyers.
The showing for the state-owned manufacturer,Indonesian Aerospace, which almost collapsed after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, represents a new sense of optimism that has not been seen in the country’s domestic military sector since the 1980s.
“I think they’ve been doing good just to sustain their operations and production in recent years,” said Lis Gindarsah, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Indonesia’s military industry nearly collapsed in the late 1990s, when the nation’s economy contracted a staggering 16 percent, leading to sharp budget and work force cuts by Indonesian military and aviation manufacturers. The Indonesian military also suffered when the United States imposed a ban on arms sales to the country after gross human rights violations by its military in East Timor in 1999.
The ban was not fully lifted until 2010 and exposed the need for Indonesia’s military to get up to speed.
A major reason for the comeback now is Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who vowed to modernize the country’s military and has nearly quadrupled the state arms budget to more than $8 billion since taking office in 2004. Under a 2012 law pushed by the president, the Indonesian military, known as the T.N.I., must buy all of its weaponry, with some exceptions, from domestic contractors, both state-owned and private.
International events like the Singapore Airshow, Asia’s largest air show, are providing more opportunities for Indonesian military contractors to sell both military and civilian hardware.
Indonesian Aerospace, also known as Dirgantara Indonesia, has been promoting its $26 million-plus CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft for antisubmarine warfare at Singapore’s exhibition, from which Indonesia withdrew over a diplomatic spat. On Wednesday, the company signed a collaboration agreement with Airbus Helicopters to promote and sell aircraft in Southeast Asia and carry out maintenance for their users, said Budiman Saleh, the Indonesian Aerospace director for commerce and restructuring.
“We are working closely with our friends from European countries and the United States to win some sales campaigns in this region,” Mr. Budiman said.
Indonesian Aerospace is proceeding with plans this year to build fighter aircraft jointly with South Korea. And although it had yet to close any deals this week, the government agreed last month to sell two multipurpose aircraft to the Philippine Air Force for 813 million pesos, or $18.1 million, with a further six in the pipeline, he said.
“We are now doing great as a result of the restructuring of the company’s balance sheet, equity, business operation, product portfolio and many other reasons,” Mr. Budiman said.
Although the Indonesian armed forces will account for about 80 percent of all purchases of locally produced weaponry, the country’s National Police will also be a buyer, and hopes are high for more regional buyers, Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, Indonesia’s deputy defense minister, said in an interview.
The company and the industry are coming back from the brink with help from Mr. Yudhoyono. A retired three-star army general, he made military spending a priority.
Indonesia’s military industry has had a rocky history, including periods during which it was run by Dutch and Japanese colonialists. In the late 1990s, when military and aviation manufacturers cut back, Indonesian Aerospace shut down most of its assembly lines in Bandung, the capital of West Java Province, and laid off about 12,000 workers.
Another state-run arms manufacturer, Pindad, which makes weapons and ammunition including bullets, machine guns and armored personnel carriers, lost more than one-third of its work force. Today the machinery at its plant, also in Bandung, looks much as it did during the 1980s.
The ban on arms sales revealed problems with Indonesia’s military. Among them was that many of its C-130 transport planes, built by the giant American company Lockheed Martin, were grounded because the military was unable to buy spare parts.
“The conclusion was that we had to revitalize our defense industries,” Mr. Sjafrie said. “For years we had an embargo; we don’t want to repeat history again.”
While Indonesia itself is not participating in the Singapore show, international events like it are helping to showcase Indonesian military contractors.
The companies must meet requirements set by the government — like meeting budgets and maintaining technical capabilities — and in exchange, Jakarta promotes them at shows and in the course of bilateral relations with other countries, Mr. Sjafrie said.
The Indonesian government in 2012 also injected a combined 3 billion rupiah, or about $250 million, into Indonesian Aerospace and the state-owned ship builder PAL Indonesia, based in the eastern Java port city of Surabaya, for factory upgrades and to turn debts into equity. The hope is that the policy overhaul will bring new and expanded business to the domestic arms industry. Pindad, for example, booked a profit of 80 billion rupiah in 2012 and was projecting a profit of 90 billion rupiah for 2013.
“I think it’s a good chance for the defense industry,” said Wahyu Utomo, Pindad’s director. “We can manage our resources and our money, if we know the long-term spending program of the T.N.I. It’s become our guidance.”
Under Mr. Yudhoyono’s military policy, a special committee was formed in 2013 to coordinate domestic production for the military, in particular manufacture of combat and special-use vehicles, warships and submarines, fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, and light and heavy weaponry.
Indonesian military contractors are also producing or negotiating agreements with military suppliers from several countries on joint production of weaponry so Indonesia can gain access to advanced technology. Potential projects include production of submarines with Daewoo Shipbuilding of South Korea, a medium tank with FNSS Savunma Sistemleri of Turkey, antiship missiles with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, and vehicle-fixed rocket launchers with MBDA of France.
Late last year, Pindad completed assembly of 11 Panser armored vehicles whose parts were manufactured by Doosan Infracore of South Korea, in a deal worth $169 million.
Pindad officials said they were hoping to sign an agreement this year with AM General, the American heavy vehicle manufacturer that produces the HMMWV, or Humvee, to supply components to Indonesia.
The Malaysian armed forces are negotiating to buy 32 armored personnel carriers from Pindad for $10 million and $14 million each, and the Brunei military is also interested in buying, Mr. Sjafrie said.
It remains to be seen whether Indonesia’s military industry revitalization policy will have any measurable effect on the country’s economy — which is already the 16th-largest in the world, thanks to commodities exports and domestic consumption — or on local regions with arms production plants, including Bandung, Surabaya, Batam Island in western Indonesia and Banyuwangi in East Java Province.
The country, which has a population of 240 million people, spends less on the military than Singapore, which has five million people.
“Made in Indonesia” weaponry and joint production agreements still cannot meet all of the Indonesian military’s needs, however.
The government gave its Defense Ministry a $5.5 billion credit to buy advanced weaponry from multiple — and at times competing — foreign sources, including 119 Leopard tanks from Germany, submarines from Russia and eight Apache attack helicopters from the United States in a tentative deal announced in August 2013.
The military budget also allocated money to upgrade 24 F-16 fighters given to Indonesia by the United States and five C-130 aircraft from Australia.