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.

The King's Guard unit also regularly moves its armour by rail to the 2nd Cavalry Division's Saraburi headquarters, 100km north of Bangkok, for training exercises. That is a luxury the Indonesians do not appear to have on populous Java.

Nor can they make use of rubberised tracks to save wear and tear on roads. So far, the firm specialising in the new innovation can only produce treads for lighter tanks, such as the 23-tonne M-41 now being phased out of the Thai cavalry.

The Leopard purchase was always controversial because the tanks were deemed unsuited to a far-flung archipelago with only two remote land borders and an under-developed road and bridge network that is a major obstacle to their effective deployment.

"Buying these tanks was never about defending the nation," says one retired Western cavalry officer. "It was about keeping up with the Joneses and having a symbol to parade around Jakarta in good times and bad."

Former army chief of staff Pramono Edhie Wibowo said as much last year, indicating in an interview that the purchase was based not on any consideration of the country's strategic needs, but on what the neighbours have in their inventories.

"I am not buying in order to compete," he said, apparently referring to Singapore's 96 Leopard 2A4s, Malaysia's 48 Polish-built T-72s and Thailand's order for 48 T-84 Oplots. "But I have to equalise our standing in terms of military power."

The military has always been reticent about saying what it planned to do with the Leopards, but it is assumed most of them will be based at a training ground in southern Sumatra, or along the Malaysia border in West and East Kalimantan.

In modern warfare, the main battle tank fills an army's heavy direct-fire role, seldom operating alone and usually deployed in organised armoured units with the support of mechanised infantry.

In urban areas, tactics are complicated by a three-dimensional environment, limited fields of view and fire and enhanced concealment. "If the enemy gets as far as Jakarta," says the cavalryman, "a few Leopards aren't going to make a difference."

As the Russians learnt in the vicious Chechnya conflict in the 1990s, main battle tanks are at a disadvantage in built-up areas, vulnerable to surface-to-surface missiles or rocket grenades fired from multi-storey buildings into their softer upper-turret armour.

While they can be decisive as an attacking weapon under some circumstances, tanks sunk into defensive positions in trenches or dug in behind earthen berms lack the ability to manoeuvre in an urban setting, allowing infantry to close on them from all sides.

In Indonesia's case, however, that is highly unlikely, even under a long-term threat scenario.

And Indonesia does not do coups - though armoured vehicles were used to convince then-President Abdurrahman Wahid that his time was up.

So that leaves us with the future sight of a 62-tonne Panzer moving a mob of demonstrators back in a hurry - or the more imposing spectacle of a column of Leopards leading the Armed Forces Day parade on Oct 5.

Now that will make a cavalryman proud.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com


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