The Land War
In a previous article I speculated that global financial difficulties could impose severe hardship on poor countries that are not self-sufficient in food or fuel. This could, given the right circumstances, lead to war on our doorstep and even invasion.
While no one knows the future we can make real world predictions about how a conflict with our northern neighbour might play out based on the current known strategy and the military acquisition paths of both nations. In the previous two articles I examined the air war and then the sea war. These articles found that Australia would lose convincingly in a conflict with the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) on current trends post 2030. This article considers the subsequent land war in this scenario.
Force the surrender of opposing ground forces
Let’s for a moment take air power out of the equation. Perhaps both sides have air parity, or perhaps Australia has invested in mobile surface to air missile systems that provide theatre air cover for the army (NB: there are no current plans to do so). How do the ground forces stack up?
The primary weapon of ground forces is the main battle tank. Australia has 59 second hand American Abrams main battle tanks. Due to budget constraints some have recently been put into storage. Indonesia has or will acquire between 100 and 200 ex NATO Leopard tanks of similar vintage. The two are roughly equivalent since both were designed to defeat Soviet armour. Either way, Australia is outnumbered close to 2:1 or 4:1. Without tanks, any other armour Australia has is irrelevant unless Australia were to invest in another tank killing platform such as the Italian light tank when it considers replacing the older ASLAVs. [Ed note: since this was written Indonesia has signed a contract with Germany for purchase of 103 Leopard tanks and associated equipment and has begun taking delivery. This is in addition to its existing inventory of light armour.]
Australia is currently taking delivery of a fleet of 22 'Tiger' helicopter gunships. These are significant force multipliers carrying two anti-tank missiles each in addition to rockets and cannon. Indonesia currently has no such capability but is on the market for helicopter gunships including the American Apache. That’s an interesting choice because the Apache is a dedicated tank killer designed from the outset to defeat massed attacks by Soviet armour. In other words, you only buy an Apache if you want to engage in nation state conflicts with countries that own main battle tanks. In the local context, that means Australia and Malaysia.
Note that helicopters are not survivable in a contested air environment and Australian helicopters would be easy prey to opposing combat aircraft including ground attack aircraft of which Indonesia intents to own 80 – 36 Hawker, 12 F5E, 16 Tucano and 16 Yak aircraft.
The Apache attack helicopter being sought by the TNI
Australia has replaced its towed artillery but has put on-hold investment in modern mobile artillery/rocket systems. Indonesia is pressing ahead with modern investments in this area including the French Caesar system. The Caesar long range mobile artillery system being acquired by TNI. Australia has no equivalent. See further here
Australia has 80,000 infantry including reserves. Reliable statistics for the TNI are difficult to come by but it appears Indonesia has around 470,000 soldiers of which at least 180,000 are ‘front line’ professional soldiers. Depending on how many troops can be moved and how many needs stay at home we get odds of between 2:1 and 5:1 which doesn’t sound particularly promising. Currently Australian infantry have better night vision and communications equipment but the TNI is developing better capabilities in this area and has only to equip a fifth of its infantry to match then outnumber, the ADF. Being numerically inferior is not a problem if you have superiority in tanks, armoured vehicles and aircraft. However if you only have parity then you have a serious problem. If you are overmatched, you lose.
TNI Marines in combat – Indonesia has a large professional army
Sustainability and supply chain
It is an open secret that the ADF lacks depth in sustainment. What that means is that we don’t have enough reserves of fuel, ammunition, spare parts, technically trained personal, and human infrastructure to sustain a high intensity conflict aka open war.
Rather we are trained and equipped for counter insurgency and coalition operations. We use stuff up and then replace it. Our capacity for sustained national defence against a determined aggressor with modern weapons is doubtful.
Australia is beginning to address this through investments to ‘network and harden’ our land forces. Essentially this is a rolling series of programs to replace and upgrade transport vehicles and communications equipment. If future governments continue to commit substantial funding to this process it will yield results in the 2020 - 2040 time frame but it won’t happen without bi-partisan support.
The TNI on the other hand has its own challenges. Logistically hundreds of vehicles and nearly half a million people are not easily coordinated, supplied, and moved over water. A very substantial naval transport infrastructure would have to be assembled. However Indonesia is developing its blue water capability including capacity for beach landings. A maritime nation with thousands of islands would be expected to do so. It is not cause for alarm but does require careful monitoring. Also, once a base was established on Australian soil the 64 Hercules transport aircraft Indonesia intends to buy could move a lot of kit very quickly. In all likelihood, if the TNI gained air superiority they would cross either the Timor Sea or, having first taken Papua New Guinea and established a forward base, cross the Coral Sea to the eastern side of Cape Tribulation North Queensland. They can ignore Darwin, bomb our northern bases, but move their land forces down the east coast of Australia, establishing military bases and supplying them by sea as they go.
Indonesian soldiers during combat operations in Ache. I once went shooting with guys like these at a target range in Ambon – about which you can read more in my book.
What Happens After ‘Ten’?
We started with the ten points of modern warfare. Number ten was “Disarm surrendered forces and send them home (or massacre them).”
There is no need to speculate about what would happen in Australia if the TNI were to take control. East Timor and Iryan Jaya provide real world examples. The TNI’s habit of ignoring Islamic violence against minorities within Indonesia should also provide a clue. I will spare the detail. It’s not hard to google.
This is not an alarmist post. Indonesia, like all nations, has a natural right to self-defence. From their perspective they have extremely well-armed neighbours to their West, a large and relatively lawless archipelago that harbours extremists to their north, there are separatist movements in Ache and Iryan Jaya, and they lost East Timor following an invasion by UN forces led by Australia. In addition Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country. They are concerned by the rise of atheist China in Asia and by the US habit of invading Muslim countries on false pretexts without UN support. They have 13000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups to manage. It is unsurprising that they are investing in a capacity for shore landings, submarines, a mobile professional army, and affordable combat aircraft.
What is needed in our region is a reasonable balance of forces. This can be done affordably and without offence by Australia if rational policy decisions are allowed to replace rent seeking within the Defence bureaucracy. This is the topic of my next and subsequent posts.
Tag line: Australian army, TNI, Indonesian military capability, GAM Ache, network and harden ADF, Australian Abrams tanks, Australian defence policy, Australian and strategic defence policy.