Thu, 28 Aug 2003

Sukhoi jet fighters touch ground

A'an Suryana and Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Braving controversies, two of the four Sukhoi jet fighters Indonesia bought from Russia arrived on Wednesday -- one day late -- at Iswahyudi Air Base in Madiun, East Java.

Chief of the Indonesian Military (TNI) Gen. Endriartono Sutarto and chief of the Indonesian Air Force Marshall Chappy Hakim were at hand when the jet fighters arrived at 7:35 a.m. aboard an Antonov cargo plane.

A modest ceremony was held on the ramp of the Antonov, where a representative of the flight crew handed over a framed picture of the two jet fighters to Endriartono.

Endriartono, however, said that it would be some time before the SU-27 SK jet fighters would be combat-ready.

Chappy said the TNI expected to receive two more Sukhoi, the SU-30 MK, on Sunday, as well as two MI-35 assault helicopters next month, as part of the US$192.6 million countertrade deal with Russia. The controversial deal was inked by President Megawati Soekarnoputri and Russian President Vladimir Putin during her state visit to Russia in April this year.

Endriartono said the fighters must be equipped with missiles, canons and other lethal weapons before they can be deemed combat ready. Ideally, he said, the optimum battle capability of the aircraft could be met, if only there were another one or two other squadron of Sukhoi, with each squadron comprising 12 to 16 fighters.

"But, whether this can be accomplished will very much depend on the financial ability of the government," he said during a press conference at the air base. The four jet fighters are scheduled to make a public appearance during TNI's anniversary on Oct. 5.

Endriartono also said that, buying Russian-made jet fighters meant that Indonesia was seeking alternative sources for military arms.

Indonesia traditionally buys its weapons from the United States and the United Kingdom, but it is often uncomfortable with the terms and conditions of the two countries. England, for example, sold weapons to Indonesia on the condition that they would be used for defensive measures, and threatened to deny selling weapons to Indonesia after a British-made jet fighter was used by the TNI against separatist rebels in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam recently.

Indonesia's other source of arms, the U.S., imposed a military embargo following the 1999 East Timor mayhem during the UN- sponsored referendum, in which blame fell on the TNI.

Currently, Indonesia has 90 combat aircraft, only half of which are operational.

Endriartono played down the suggestion that the TNI had bypassed the House of Representatives in clinching the deal.

The TNI has been under fire as it has continued with the deal even while a House investigation into alleged irregularities in the countertrade is ongoing.

Separately, House members said they were ready to continue their probe into the alleged irregularities of the countertrade deal.

Legislator Yasril Ananta Baharuddin said the House would summon Minister of Trade and Industry Rini MS Soewandi to explain role in the countertrade.

The issue became highly controversial after the House investigation found that the countertrade was not included in the state budget and the government never consulted the DPR over the deal.

"The arrival of the Sukhoi, September at the latest, has already been agreed upon by Indonesia and Russia. We will lose the Russian authorities' trust if we breach the commitment," Endriartono said.