JAKARTA (AFP) — In a land hit by one natural disaster after another, Indonesia's armed forces must shift their focus from the battlefield to emergency and relief efforts, its defence minister said Wednesday.
In an interview with AFP, Juwono Sudarsono said most of Indonesia's defence spending in the next decade would go on improving its transport capability to better respond to emergencies.
There are certainly plenty of those.
Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods and fires are a virtually daily feature of life in this vast archipelago nation, which sits on the so-called Pacific "ring of fire" where continental plates meet.
The deadliest recent event was the December 2004 tsunami spawned by a quake which swept the Indian Ocean, killing 168,000 people in the northern point of Indonesia's Sumatra island.
Sudarsono said he foresaw that in the next 10 to 15 years, the role of the defence forces would be particularly important in terms of delivering relief and aid to stricken areas.
"Looking ahead, for 10 years ahead in this ring of fire, and with tectonic plates underneath us, the bulk of our defence spending would be on transport capability for emergency responses," he said.
That would include air and land transport as well as a sealift capability, he added in the interview, conducted entirely in English in his office.
By man-made disasters, he said, he meant conflicts that were "endemic" in outer islands such as the Moluccas and other troublespots.
"The bulk of our budget for the period for 2005-2010 is, in fact, more for transport and airlift capacity, and sealift," Sudarsono said.
He said the military were quickest to respond to disaster, with airplanes and helicopters commandeered by the government for initial search and rescue efforts as well as providing aid supplies.
"As exemplified by the post-tsunami relief efforts, the army, the navy and the air force were first on the scene with transport ships, helicopters," he said.
Sudarsono was educated in Britain and the United States and has served in different administrations back to the regime of former dictator Suharto.
Now 65, he says the armed forces -- 316,000 personnel across the army, navy and air force -- are run on a modest annual budget of 3.2 billion dollars.
Its delivery capacity suffered greatly under a military embargo imposed by Washington after a bloody 1991 massacre in Indonesia-occupied East Timor.
The embargo has been lifted, but 15 of its fleet of 21 Hercules transport airplanes remain out of operation.
"We are focusing on the Hercules because we have about 21 planes and about three quarters of them are grounded because of the lack of spares," Sudarsono said, adding that the air force was prioritizing their refitting.
Traditionally reliant on the West -- notably the United States -- for its military equipment, Indonesia has since a decade ago sought to diversify its sources, Sudarsono said.
The Indonesian and Russian presidents inked a billion-dollar arms deal in September under which Jakarta is buying helicopters, tanks and submarines.
It came a month after Indonesia had signed another deal worth 354 million dollars to buy six Sukhoi-30 fighter jets from Moscow.
Sudarsono said he would also be visiting China in early November to sign a defence cooperation agreement that could include a joint production programme, again focusing on transport.
He said the military shopping spree was not aimed at boosting Indonesia's strike capability.
"We would just like to maintain what we call technological parity with the fighters that are existing in the region, be it Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand," adding that in terms of quantity, the Indonesian air force had "just the bare minimum."
"That is all that we can afford," he said. "I am running one of the best underpaid defence forces in Southeast Asia."