Jakarta's tanks: A case of keeping up with Joneses?

Jakarta's tanks: A case of keeping up with Joneses?

As any armoured warfare expert will tell you, main battle tanks hate cities. So it was a surprise when word leaked out recently that the Indonesian army intends basing some of its newly acquired, 62-tonne German-made Leopards in the heart of Jakarta.

According to the US-based Defence News, it is part of an "urban defence strategy" that will involve a major reconstruction project in "strategic" areas around the presidential palace, including Gambir, Pejambon and Freedom Square.

The article quoted Indonesian officials as saying that basing the tanks at the Army Strategic Reserve's (Kostrad) headquarters on the eastern edge of the tree-shaded square was necessary to bolster the capital's defences.

The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) has recently taken delivery of the first 30 of 103 Leopard 2A6s - part of a US$292 million (S$370 million) order which also includes 42 Marder 1A3 infantry fighting vehicles and 11 armoured recovery and engineering vehicles.

The Leopards will replace the British-made Scorpion light reconnaissance tanks and Stormer tracked armoured vehicles now in service with the cavalry units of the two divisions that make up the 40,000-strong Kostrad, Indonesia's main combat force.

Coming from German army reserve stocks, many of the Leopard tanks are being upgraded to the Leopard 2 Revolution variant, which is fitted with additional mine protection and a tailor-made Advanced Modular Armour Protection package.

While it has offered few details about the nature of the perceived threat, the army says it intends to excavate an underground installation in Kostrad's Gambir compound to house the tanks. It will also strengthen the surface of surrounding streets.

Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin asserts that the urban defence strategy is necessary to protect central Jakarta in times of crisis and says funding for the project will, somewhat surprisingly, come from Jakarta's regional revenue, rather than the defence budget.

Developers are also being asked to reinforce the rooftops of nearby buildings, not only for helicopter landing pads but also for surface-to-air missile batteries, even if most of what the TNI currently has in its inventory is man-portable.

The Thai army has always kept tanks in the middle of Bangkok. But then the 4th Cavalry Battalion, based in historic Dusit district, has also played a key role in almost every military power play over the past 30 years. And there have been quite a few of those.

In the abortive Young Turks coup of 1981, the unit's commander, a lieutenant-colonel loyal to the Prem Tinsulanond government, chased after his tanks in his underpants, vainly trying to stop rebel subordinates leaving the barracks in the pre-dawn hours.

Only recently, the battalion has started re-equipping with Ukranian-built T-84 Oplots. At 46 tonnes each, these are much less likely to chew up Bangkok's streets than the heavier Leopards are around central Jakarta.

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