JAKARTA, INDONESIA— Indonesia has announced that it will begin to mass-produce surveillance drones this year. Analysts say Indonesia's local drone development and production is part of a broader trend of rapidly modernizing militaries in the Asia Pacific.
Funded by the Defense Ministry, Indonesia initiated its surveillance drone development program in 2004. A collaborative effort between several government agencies, the Wulung, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is ready to be mass-produced for the Indonesian Air Force this year.
The Wulung prototype was locally designed and produced, and initially will be used for non-military purposes, such as monitoring active volcanoes, spotting illegal logging and patrolling the country’s huge maritime area.
Covering a wide region
Samudro, a director at Indonesia’s Research and Technology Application Agency that jointly developed the prototype, said the drones will help Indonesia keep tabs on its 17,000 islands and multiple borders.
"To monitor our borders, to monitor our illegal fishing, to monitor the human trafficking, for example, and also for search and rescue," said Samudro.
The aircraft will be placed in the country’s vast border regions, with Papua New Guinea and East Timor to the east, and Malaysia and Brunei to the northwest.
While all current drones are unarmed, the Indonesia Defense Ministry says it has long-term plans for a weaponized model capable of shooting missiles or dropping bombs.
The Wulung drone provides real-time recording to ground control stations, but can only fly for up to four hours and as far as 73 kilometers from its ground controllers.
In comparison, some U.S. drones can fly for more than a day without refueling and can be controlled via satellite from bases thousands of kilometers away.
With their sophisticated technology and complex supporting infrastructure, armed drones have come to define a new, very modern, form of warfare.
In trying to match global arms capabilities, Yohannes Sulaiman, an analyst from the Indonesian Defense University, said Indonesia’s local drone production is counterproductive and ego driven.
“It pushes the development back actually years behind other countries. It is all a matter of national ego. It is like the Indonesian way, I guess, proof that we are smart enough to build our own drones,” said Sulaiman.
Drones becoming ubiquitous
Most major militaries today operate some form of unarmed drones, purchased from major suppliers such as Israel and the United States. And with growing economic clout and geopolitical tensions, drone usage in the Asia Pacific is set to proliferate.
Richard Bitzinger, an ex-CIA analyst and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said drone development in Indonesia is all part of a broader regional trend.
“I mean this is all part of a trend of ratcheting up military capabilities throughout the Asia Pacific. It is just as militaries replace older equipment, the newer equipment is just head and shoulders superior and endowed with new capabilities that these militaries beforehand did not possess," said Bitzinger. "And so I mean, for me alone, I don’t see drones alone as some kind of ominous game changer, but what I do see is an overall trend in military modernization, which is increasing the qualitative capabilities of regional militaries.”
China, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan all have UAV programs underway.
In 2011 the Asia Pacific spent $590 million on UAVs, which global consulting firm Frost and Sullivan estimates could rise to $1.4 billion in 2017.