Leanders take up positions

This morning a headline proclaiming the deployment of frigates to the southern coast by the Indonesian navy in response to Australian intrusions caught my eye.

The background to this is the Australian Operation Sovereign Borders, an effort to “combat people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders.” The tougher Australian stance on asylum seekers have created headlines both at home and abroad, and in an effort to try turn home the asylum seekers and their boats as close to their departure destination as possible Royal Australian Navy and custom’s vessels now patrol close to the Indonesian shore.

The latest spat comes after the government on a press conference last Friday (17/1/2014) admitted to breaching the Indonesian territorial waters on five instances, and extended their apologies. The ships in question were both naval vessels and a custom’s ship.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told the reporters that they “deeply regret these events”, and that Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, already had offered “an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian government” to her Indonesian counterpart, adding that the Australian embassy in Jakarta would make a formal apology the very same day. However, he also maintained that all the breaches happened unintentionally, and in violation of Australian policy.

As stated earlier, the Indonesian reaction was anything but understanding, and by dispatching the largest surface combatants the navy have, one or several of the Ahmad Yani class frigates, to the scene of the intrusions, it has sent a sharp signal to the Australians not to repeat the violations.

Indonesian Leander-class frigate KRI Karel Satsuit Tubin (KST 356) in 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons/USN

However, the reasoning behind the sending of the frigates is rather uncertain. One of the Australian ships in the area was the ANZAC/MEKO 200-class HMAS Stuart (FFH 153), a 3 600 t (full load) frigate, and the most capable surface ships in Australian service. There might be a perceived need to match this ship, frigate to frigate. However, the Ahmad Yani-class are the last of the British Leander class ships left in service (being the ex-Dutch van Speijk-class). Although a highly capable and successful ship in the 1960’s, it is by now a dated design, and although the ships have been modernized, it is a far cry from its Australian counterparts. It is also a considerably smaller vessel, at just over 2 800 t (full load), and it is highly questionable whether the ship even can match the flank speed of the HMAS Stuart, if the Australians would find their possible escort to be unsettling.

A more logical step would have been to employ some of the ocean-going patrol vessels the Indonesian navy operates, or, if there is a perceived need for heavier armament, the fast attack crafts or corvettes that are of a decidedly more modern design than the frigates.

The point of the operation might well be to impress the Indonesian government and general population more than to deter the Australians. The Indonesian navy is in expansion, with the steel-cutting ceremony of the first new SIGMA 10514 PKR Frigate being held only last week, and the Indonesian defense minister expressing their interest in Club S armed Project 636 Improved Kilo-class submarines earlier this month. However, it has also suffered embarrassing setbacks, including its latest trimaran FAC KRI Klewang (625) catching fire and sinking in September 2012, less than a month after its launch. It is also unclear wether the Indonesian navy had noticed the intrusions, or if the Australian apology was the first sign of it. Getting the chance to show the usefulness of its heavier units, possibly with the opportunity to get some nice pictures of an Indonesian frigate escorting a RAN vessel close to the border, might just be the boost the navy’s reputation needs.