The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.


The Cove is also privileged to share with you a unique interview opportunity with Natalie Sambhi, a pHD scholar at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra, focusing on Indonesian military history. 

The Cove is also privileged to share with you a unique interview opportunity with Natalie Sambhi, a pHD scholar at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra, focusing on Indonesian military history. 


On this page:

  • Military Capability
  • Defence White Paper
  • Military Engagements
  • Security Cooperation


Military Capability

The Indonesian National Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) are the military forces of the Republic of Indonesia. It consists of the Army (TNI-AD), Navy (TNI-AL), and Air Force (TNI-AU). The President of Indonesia is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The military has undergone several reforms over the decades and only came under the direct auspices of the Ministry of Defence in 1998, the most recent overhaul in May 2018 inaugurated four new military units: Kostrad 3rd Infantry Division, 3rd Fleet Command, 3rd Air Force Operational Command, and Marine Force III. The new military units are intended to reduce response times in an era of increasing strategic competition. In 2016, TNI comprised of approximately 395,500 military personnel including the Marine Corps which is a branch of the Navy.

The TNI were formed under a different name during the Indonesian National Revolution, when it undertook a guerrilla war along with informal militia. As a result of this – and the need to maintain internal security – all branches of the Armed Forces were originally organised along territorial lines and aimed at defeating internal enemies of the state and potential external invaders.

With more than 50,000 km of coastline, self-reliance through conventional defence – particularly naval and air forces – is not affordable. Thus, a policy of 'Total People’s Defence' is in place whereby the whole population would be mobilised to ward off any external threat to the sovereignty of the nation. It predicts a three-stage war: a short initial period in which the invader would defeat a conventional Indonesian military, a long period of territorial guerrilla war followed by a final stage of expulsion: with military acting as a rallying point for defence from the grassroots village level upwards. The unusual military doctrine relies on a close bond between civilian and soldier to overcome Indonesia’s limited military resources across its vast archipelagic estate. For most of Indonesia's history, the army has been deeply involved in civilian life, and this practice continues. A poll conducted in 2015 showed that 90% of Indonesians trust TNI, making it the most respected institution in the country.

65 years later, the Indonesian Government sought to strengthen the TNI to achieve minimum standards of strength known as the Minimum Essential Force (MEF). The MEF was divided into three strategic five-year plan stages: 2010–2014, 2015–2019, and 2020–2024. Initially the Government budgeted Rp156 trillion (around US$16 billion at the time) for the provision of TNI's main weapon system in the first MEF period. However, military expenditure is low and has remained under 1% of GDP for the last five years. Topping the priority list of the modernisation program includes the planned purchase of jet fighters to replace the aging F-5-E/F Tiger II warplanes and the renegotiation for a joint jet fighter development project with South Korea. Part of the MEF scheme is the targeted procurement and joint development of Chang Bogo-class diesel attack submarines, also from South Korea, to increase the fleet from five to 12.

The Indonesian military inventory is comprised of equipment from a wide variety of sources. Since 2010, the top suppliers are China, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, the UK, and the US. The Republic has a growing defence industry fuelled by technology transfers and cooperation agreements with several countries. In 2019, the Indonesian Government publicly said that growing its domestic defence industry is a national priority over the next decade.

For more information on TNI military capability, see the resources below:


Defence White Paper

Indonesia's latest Defence White Paper was released by the Defence Ministry on 20 November 2015. It reiterates the national objectives: to advance general prosperity, to develop the nation's intellectual life, and to contribute to the implementation of a world order based on freedom, lasting peace, and social justice. It recognises that the challenges the archipelago will face are complex and on multiple levels. These include issues such as transnational crime, foreign power espionage, non-state actors, climate change, natural disasters, and health security.

The White Paper lays out concerns about fostering peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, especially on issues such as the South China Sea. Despite stating that Indonesia is not a claimant in the disputes, it conveys a sense of vulnerability over Indonesia’s status as an island nation with outstanding border issues. Leading to a declaration that of the 92 small outlying islands, 12 need priority management to secure Indonesia's territory and sovereignty.

This informs Indonesia's defence posture of ‘Bela Negara’ or ‘Defending the State’ which led to the Bela Negara program of compulsory state defence education, based on the Republic's Constitution where all citizens are legally entitled and obligated to defend the nation. Explaining the central nature of citizens to the defence system, it goes on to state the 'essence of national defence acts as a guide for every citizen to comprehend national goals, national interests, the nature of national defence' and more. Conscription is provided for by law, yet the Forces have been able to maintain mandated strength levels with volunteers and have never resorted to a draft. Most enlisted personnel are recruited in their own home regions and generally train and serve most of their time in units nearby. Yet, the ambitious program aims to instil patriotism across the country and bolster reserves by 100 million cadres over the next decade.

There are a long list of residual internal challenges facing the Armed Forces: rebuilding the Indonesian defence industry, accelerating the MEF program, managing the Defence Ministry's tenuous relationship with the TNI, completing unfinished defence-related laws, and rejuvenating civil-military relations.

More recently, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto provided the outline of Indonesia’s defence during his statement in the Indonesian Parliament two years ago. Setting forward the ‘Total People's Defence’ principle to compensate for the TNI’s limited budget. This move provides cover for the Jokowi administration's reluctance to update the six-year-old White Paper – one was meant to be published in 2020 – which has induced mild confusion over the country's future defence strategy.

For more information related to the TNI and Defence White Paper, see the following resources:


Military Engagements

Throughout the history of modern Indonesia, the military has maintained an important role in political and social affairs. Most prominent figures in the archipelago have military backgrounds. The Armed Forces were actively involved in the rise of the Suharto administration in 1965 and continued to support the increasingly corrupt regime. However, after the fall of the regime in 1998, there were calls to limit the military’s role in national politics. With the inauguration of the newly elected national parliament in October 2004, the military no longer retained a formal political role, although it retains a measure of social influence.

Other previous engagements of the army include: a campaign to annex the Netherlands new Guinea, the Konfrontasi to oppose the creation of Malaysia, the Indonesian Communist Purge (PKI), and the invasion of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) which remains Indonesia's largest military operation. It is also a top contributor to UN peacekeeping missions with 2,792 military and police officers deployed over nine missions in various capacities.

As the world's largest archipelagic country with 3.2 million square kilometres of sea area, covering two-thirds of its territory, Indonesia is falling behind in maritime security despite many threats on this front. The International Maritime Bureau's piracy and armed robbery map for 2020 displays the high level of activity in and around Indonesia's territorial and offshore waters. The Strait of Malacca and South China Sea remain high risk for piracy and armed robbery against ships: the number of attacks increased slightly from 25 incidents in 2019 to 26 in 2020 despite aggressive maritime patrolling by regional authorities. Vessels continue to be boarded while anchored or berthed at Indonesian ports and hijacked vessels often disguised and cargo diverted to ports in East Asia.

Although Indonesia is not a formal claimant in the South China Sea, some of its waters lie within China's 'nine-dash line' maritime claims, resulting in some standoffs in recent years. Since 2016, the Armed Forces has bolstered its presence on Great Natuna Island (full name is Pulau Natuna Besar), the main island of the Middle Natuna Archipelago, part of the Riau Islands province, and held military exercises in surrounding waters.

The Indonesian military has been assisting police in countering the Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT, also known as East Indonesia Mujahideen), a local Islamic State (ISIL)-affiliated terrorist group. Jokowi's administration in early 2016 proposed replacing the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law. Following the Surabaya bombings in August 2018, the worst attack on Indonesian soil since the Bali bombings in 2002, the controversial bill was passed the People's Consultative Assembly. It allows the Indonesian National Armed Forces to participate in counter-terrorism activities upon police request and presidential approval. It also allows the extended detention of terror suspects and permits wiretapping without initial court approval.

(Warning: graphic images of dead bodies and injuries)

For more information on Indonesia’s military engagements, see the resources below:


Security Cooperation

Indonesia's international defence outlook seeks friendly relations with other states in support of a defensive military strategy. Upholding Indonesia's non-aligned stance by maintaining links with many defence partners and suppliers. Defence Minister Subianto has been flexing the country's defence diplomacy to balance Indonesia's strategic geopolitical position amid the growing great power contest. Working to diversify security and defence partnerships that also manifest Indonesia’s traditional preference for a ‘free and active’ (bebas-aktif) security cooperation policy. However, the majority of Indonesia's defence diplomacy is inward-looking and prioritises the development of Indonesia's defence industries and cooperation to address non-traditional security matters, such as counter-terrorism and cyber-security.

Indonesia and Australia have several security agreements concerning security cooperation, defence and military involving both nations. Since 1995, five official agreements have been signed: the 1995 Agreements, the 2006 Lombok Treaty, two Defence Cooperation Agreements relating to the Lombok Treaty, and the 2014 Joint Understanding on Security. The first agreement, signed in 1995, was the first of its kind for Indonesia, and was at first received well by both countries. However, opposing positions on the East Timorese crisis in 1999 dissolved the 1995 Agreement and induced a break in the two country’s relations. No new bilateral security agreements were signed until the Lombok Treaty of 2006 which proved more successful. Recently, the Government of Australia and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia announced a Plan of Action for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (2020-2024). Two out of the five pillars focus on common defence issues: securing Indonesian, Australian, and the region's shared interests and maritime cooperation.

For more information on Indonesia’s security cooperation, see the following resources:


Discussion Questions:

  1. Indonesia is facing numerous challenges which may require a military response, the foremost being increased Chinese presence in waters claimed by Indonesia. What areas might Indonesia need to focus on in order to meet future challenges from a military perspective?
  2. As our closest neighbour, and as two medium-sized powers, Australia and Indonesia have the potential to be significant influencers in the South East Asian region. Should the two nations look to undertake more bilateral engagements with a view to becoming regional bi-lateral 'power house'? Will this be supported by smaller regional nations or will it be viewed negatively and impact both nations in other areas of national power?
  3. In 2019, the Indonesian Government publicly said that growing its domestic defence industry is a national priority over the next decade. Does this present an opportunity for Australian companies to provide support and partnerships to assist in this growth?
  4. Indonesia and Australia have several security agreements concerning security cooperation, defence and military involving both nations. What are the biggest mutual threats facing Australia and Indonesia over the next decade? What might the ADF's role in this to support Government objectives?