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Over the last two years, former Indonesian army general Prabowo Subianto has become the most influential man to occupy the position of defense minister in the post-Suharto era. A confluence of presidential delegation, formal and informal networks, and personal resources has underpinned his strong position as defense minister.

First, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is largely a domestic president, who prefers to delegate defense and foreign policy issues to his subordinates. When Jokowi appointed the former general to his cabinet in 2019, he commented that Prabowo “knows more than I do.”

Second, Prabowo has the benefit of strong formal and informal networks. He is chairman of the Gerindra Party, currently the third largest political party in Indonesia. Formally, the party is represented in Commission I, the parliamentary committee overseeing defense policy issues, enabling Gerindra politicians to support the minister from within Parliament. Informally, he has also appointed close allies from Gerindra and former military colleagues to new positions in and around the Ministry of Defense.

Third, the defense minister has been unusually active. During his first 18 months in the role, he conducted 20 foreign visits to 14 countries in a bid to formulate a 25-year defense acquisition plan. While his predecessor Ryamizard Ryacudu focused on internal security concerns like terrorism and piracy, Prabowo has shifted the emphasis towards strengthening Indonesia’s external defense capabilities.

As a defense minister with solid military credentials, he has ameliorated the weakness of the Defense Ministry, which has been traditionally perceived as less powerful than the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) headquarters. Indonesia’s dual command structure, in which the President is the Commander-in-Chief while the Minister of Defense has policy formulation and administrative authority specified in law, is the principal reason for this perception.

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Existing legislation lends an ambiguous structure to the relationship between the Defense Ministry and TNI HQ, stating that it is based on “cooperation” and “coordination” rather than the subordination of the military to the civilian leadership. The lack of clarity, as well as a ministry mainly staffed by active military officers, had often given the TNI significant informal influence over defense policy and defense acquisitions.

Admittedly, post-Suharto military reforms have enhanced civilian control and military professionalism. However, as the Defense Ministry is not part of the operational chain of command, it is institutionally constrained in asserting civilian prerogatives in formulating defense policy, representing military interests, and administering the TNI.

Prabowo’s stature had enabled him to fully assert the Defense Minister’s statutory authority to shape defense policy and control the weapons procurement policy. On defense policy, he has sought to balance both institutional change and continuity. In his 2019 speech to Parliament, he articulated a total defense system as the basis of the country’s defense policy, basically rehashing the traditional land-centric defensive policy based on the TNI’s territorial command structure.

This traditional land orientation is now balanced with a stronger sea and air emphasis. The 2020 and 2021 State Defense Policy regulations envision stronger maritime and air surveillance capabilities, emplacement of integrated TNI units on outlying islands, with particular attention on expanding missile and other area-denial capabilities. To reorient the TNI’s attention, Prabowo has focused on acquiring new fighter jets and naval assets.

To be sure, Prabowo has also recognized land forces as the senior branch of the armed forces, especially in preparing outlying islands as the first line of defense under the so-called archipelagic state doctrine. Nonetheless, these moves indicate his incipient thinking about developing Indonesia’s deterrent power and improving its ability to control maritime choke points within Indonesia’s archipelagic waters.

Additionally, Prabowo has strongly asserted the Defense Ministry’s statutory prerogatives in setting defense procurement policy. This is a significant departure from past practice, where the Defense Ministry solicited requirements from the services and pursued weapon procurement accordingly, despite parliamentary and public objections, such as in the controversial purchase of Leopard tanks in 2012.

A controversy in June 2021 revolved around a leaked document that detailed a 25-year weapon procurement masterplan to be funded by long-term foreign debt at a cost of $125 billion.

First, the masterplan was formulated without the armed forces’ input or consultation. During a May 6 meeting with Commission I, the TNI Commander admitted that he was not involved or consulted on the masterplan. Consultations with the three services only proceeded subsequently upon parliamentary request, suggesting tight ministerial control of the process.

Second, the Defense Ministry had not shared classified information and detailed defense plans with Commission I members. Committee members admitted that they were not briefed or consulted on planned purchases of Italian frigates when responding to Italian media reports. They were unable to obtain data on the Ministry’s plans to fulfil stage 3 of Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force, slated for completion in 2024.

Three points stand out here. First, Jokowi’s delegation of defense matters to Prabowo could set a precedent for reducing direct presidential control over the military. Second, presidential support has in effect created a single chain of command running from the president to the defense minister. In public statements, the armed forces acknowledge that they are only end users (pengguna) and do not determine procurement policy. Third, the ministry has dominated defense policy vis-à-vis TNI HQ and Parliament but at the expense of weakening legislative oversight and consultations with other stakeholders.

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A strong defense minister appears favorable to the development of a strong Ministry of Defense. Nonetheless, even force of personality and personal stature have their limits. For civil-military relations to be stable,  institutional relations of defense cannot be dependent solely on personal vagaries—the president’s willingness to delegate, a strong and assertive defense minister, and a military willing to accept ministerial authority.

Prabowo is now prioritizing defense modernization, developing the national reserve, and keeping an eye on the prospects of a 2024 presidential run. Yet, he is also exceptionally well-placed to work with Parliament to pursue amendments to the 2004 Law on the TNI, clarify the relationship between the Defense Ministry and the TNI HQ, and address long stalled reforms to the military justice system. If he succeeds, it could validate the gradualist thesis of Indonesia’s democratic reform process.