On April 17, Indonesia reelected president Joko Widodo, who has presided over a rapidly growing economy, even as his originally liberal politics have taken an increasingly conservative bent. The unique Muslim democracy consist of seventeen thousand islands spanning from South East Asia to the waters off Australia. With over 269 million inhabitants, it is also the fourth most populous country on the planet, ranked just behind the United States.
Indonesia is also well on its way to becoming a major submarine power in the Pacific—for the second time in its history.
The latest milestone was the launch of the KRI Alugoro on April 11, 2019 from Semarang Dock in Surabaya, Indonesia—the first ever submarine built by the island nation, though with some assistance from the type’s Korean manufacturer DSME.
Two Korean-built sisterships, the Nagapasa and Ardadedali were commissioned by Indonesia in 2017 and 2018. All together the three submarines, and the technology transfer for Indonesian manufacture, cost $1.2 billion. The new boats join two nearly forty-year-old Type 209/1300 submarines named Cakra and Nanggala, which are being upgraded with new sensors and combat systems.
The Type 209 was first prolifically built by Germany than approved for license production in South Korea as the Chang Bogo-class. The Nagapasa-class submarines are Improved Type 209-1400 submarines with new German sonars, radars and navigation systems.
The fourteen-hundred-ton submarines have fairly typical performance parameters and weaponry ranging from torpedoes, mines, anti-ship missiles and even capacity for naval commandoes. However, they lack cutting-edge technologies such as Air Independent Propulsion or Lithium Ion Batteries, both of which could allow them to remain submerged for much longer intervals.
Nonetheless, even traditional diesel-electric submarines can prove extremely difficult to track. The Argentinian Type 209 San Luis, for example, nearly torpedoed two oblivious British warships during the Falkland War, but repeated torpedo malfunctions spared the Royal Navy vessels.
In 2019, the Indonesian Navy announced it would purchase three more Improved Type 209s from DSME for $1.02 billion, and that they would enter service by 2026. Furthermore, the Indonesian Navy may aim for a total of twelve submarines by procuring six more advanced submarines—potentially Type 214 export submarines with air independent propulsion according to submarine analyst Peter Coats.
Indonesia’s Whiskey-Class Subs
In fact, for around a decade Indonesia had the largest indigenous submarine fleet in South East Asia. During the 1950s, newly-independent Indonesia sought to expand its political control over outlying islands, some of which still flew Dutch colonial flag. Under independence leader Sukarno, Jakarta began purchasing extensive Soviet arms to supports its “Confrontation” policy of using military pressure.
Those acquisitions included twelve Soviet Whiskey-class diesel electric submarines and a submarine tender (KRI Ratulangi) to support them. During the 1950s, Soviet shipyards churned out over 200 Whiskey-class boats, which were based on newly-acquired technology from Nazi Germany’s Type XXI “electric boat” U-Boat. Famously, one of the old submarines crashed into the Swedish coast in the “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident.
The 1,470-ton submarines were delivered between 1959–1962 along with then-advanced SAET-50 anti-ship acoustic homing torpedoes. The initial Indonesian crews received nine months of training in Gdansk, Poland from Russian instructors in English, including cruises on the Baltic.
Jakarta soon put the subs to use in its campaign for control of Western Guinea, as described by Rear Adm. Agung Pramono in “The History of the Indonesian Submarine Squadron.”
“There were three submarine deployments during the military operation—called JAYA WIJAYA 1—against the Dutch forces in the West Papua. KRI Nagabanda (403), KRI Trisula (402), and KRI Tjandrasa (408) successfully launched an attack on the Dutch forces in the West Papua area; in operation TJAKRA II, Tjandrasa managed to infiltrate the enemy’s area to land a group of Indonesian Special Forces on the island. [15 personnel near Sentani airport.]
For the success of that operation, the Indonesian Government awarded Tjandrasa and her crew with the prestigious “Bintang Sakti” medal. To the present day, Tjandrasa is the only naval vessel to have been awarded the medal.
In April 1963, in operation VISHNU MUKTI, KRl Nagarangsang, Tjundamani and Alugoro again conducted a ‘show of force’ in West Papua waters.”
A collection of anecdotes from the Indonesian blog Weapons Technology describes a harrowing incident involving the Nagabanda near Biak in 1962:
“At 12:15 there suddenly came an order to dive to a depth of 15 meters. The sub’s commander Major Tjipto Wignjoprajitno gasped "They are flying above us! If they drop bombs, we are finished!"
Apparently that night a Dutch Neptune plane approached Nagabanda from behind. The crew only detected it when the plane was above them.
Nagabanda continued to dive to a depth of 50 meters. Suddenly there was the sound: ping ... ping ... ping ... Apparently the Dutch had dropped a sonar buoy.
Nagabanda continued diving down to 70 meters. Soon afterwards the Dutch began to drop depth charges. BOOM ...
For three hours the Nagabanda continued zig-zag while submerged. Depth charges continued to detonate. Conditions on the submarine became critical, especially after the submarine’s horizontal steering was damaged. The boat could no longer pull up from its dive.
Nagabanda’s commander decided to turn off the diesel engine to avoid going too deep. After that they look for a "liquid runway”—a layer of seawater with a higher density than the surrounding waters. There they kept silent while turning off all noise-producing equipment. Even the crew was forbidden from moving.
They survived in stuffy air, heat and lack of oxygen for 36 hours before finally convinced the Dutch squadron moved away. At midnight they climbed to the sea surface by blowing their ballast. From there they sailed to Halmahera, where they discovered the damage to the horizontal steering was caused by the leaves of the right and left steering wheel being detached due to a depth charge explosion.”
The Whiskey-class Alugoro was also photographed test-firing a Soviet-supplied SSN-3 Shaddock anti-ship cruise missile. The test of the bulky folding-wing missiles, which had to be fired while surfaced, may have been intended to intimidate Dutch forces.
Jakarta ultimately achieved its objective of forcing the Dutch out of West New Guinea. Then from 1963–1966, it unsuccessfully militarily opposed the creation of an independent Malaysian state, drawing it into repeated clashes with Australian forces.
Therefore, in 1964 the Nagabanda was dispatched to spy on the coast of Western Australia, which proved to have colder waters than the crew was used to. Upon turning around, they decided to dump their garbage in Australian waters, “especially [empty food cans] made in Indonesia.”
Later, Nagabanda was dispatched to photograph Malaysia’s Terengganu beach to determine whether it was viable to land troops there. Detected by a British frigate and Shackleton patrol plane, the crew temporarily repainted their hull numbers to confuse their pursuers.
However, Sukarno’s warming relationship with the Soviet Union inspired U.S. efforts to destabilize him. Finally, in 1966–1967 the CIA helped orchestrate a right-wing military coup, which resulted in in the slaughter over a half-million Indonesian communists and ethnic minorities. This butchery chilled relations with Soviet Union, which stopped providing the spare parts and maintenance expertise necessary to run the submarines, forcing Indonesia to cannibalize most of the fleet in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, the KRI Pasopati remained operational during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1976. The Pasopati was finally decommissioned in 1990 and is now a museum ship in the middle of downtown Surabaya.
Indonesia’s history of submarine combat operations hints at how its current rapidly growing undersea fleet will enhance the island nation’s maritime clout in the south Pacific—both in terms of anti-ship capability, as well as the ability to covertly deploy troops and spy on activities of its neighbors.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.