Indonesia Announces Plans to Acquire 42 Rafale Fighters Under $8.1 Billion Deal: Can it Replace the Russian Su-35?

On February 10 the French Defence Ministry announced that Indonesia was planning an order for 42 Rafale fighter jets under an $8.1 billion deal. Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto stated in a meeting with his French counterpart Florence Parly to this effect: "We're planning to acquire 42 Rafale,” with Parly adding: “Our strategic partnership will benefit from the deepening of our defence relations.” The deal will make Indonesia by far France’s largest defence client in Southeast Asia, and comes despite the country having previously operated only U.S. and Russian sourced fighter aircraft. The Indonesian Defence Ministry previously announced a deal had been concluded to acquire 11 Su-35S heavyweight fighters in February 2018 under a $1.1 billion contract, although the acquisition was cancelled after the United States threatened Jakarta with economic sanctions should it go ahead with the purchase. Washington’s policy of threatening any client for high end Russian weapons systems with economic warfare has served to increase the market share for Western arms producers, with Indonesia’s case being a notable example where Rafale acquisitions were facilitated by the country’s cancellation of a Su-35 acquisition as a direct result of U.S. policies. 

Should Indonesia proceed with its acquisition plans its Rafale fighters will cost approximately $193 million each, compared to just $100 million for the Su-35, despite the Rafale being acquired in much larger numbers. This is despite the Su-35 having 180 percent the weight and close to double the endurance of the Rafale, as well as a far larger sensor suite and engines which are 90 percent more powerful. The Russian jet’s AL-41 is the most powerful engine of any fourth generation fighter with 142.2 kN of thrust while the Rafale’s M88 are the very weakest with just 75 kN. Coming from two very different weight ranges, the heavyweight Su-35 is a considerably higher end aircraft which was considered a natural successor to Indonesia’s Su-27 and Su-30 fighters currently in service.

Transitioning to the Rafale will force the Indonesian Air Force to invest considerably more in conversion training and retire its Russian maintenance equipment and weaponry from older Sukhoi fighters rather than use them with its new generation. The Rafale will likely ensure that the Indonesian Air Force will lack qualitative parity with its neighbours fielding heavier more advanced aircraft. Singapore and Australia both field F-35 stealth fighters, and the former also deploys F-15SG Eagles while the latter relies on the F-18F Super Hornet all of which have significant performance advantages over the Rafale. 

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