History has proved itself, in the vast span of oceans, islands, especially those strategically placed, are often fought after, and plays a crucial part on turning the tide of war. Malta and Midway in World War II, Ascension Island in Falklands War are some fine example
The Indonesian Air Force, known as Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU) has revealed that they will be building a Su-27/30 shelter/ facilities at the Ranai Airport, on Natuna Island. The fighters will be based alongside four AH-64E Apaches.
The airport which has limited facilities, had since undergone significant upgrades such as having radar installed to enable night/ IFR operations. Ranai airport is served by airlines including Manunggal Air Service, Trigana Air Service from Pontianak and Sky Aviation from Batam, Pekan Bahru and Pontianak. The 2563m asphalt runway is able to launch and recover Su-30 but plans are made to extend it to about 3000m. Seen below, the relatively empty airfield has plenty of land for future development of the mentioned Su-30 facilities. The development of Ranai Airport in Natuna and neighboring Matak Island into a military base is a strategic move by the Indonesian defence planners amidst the growing interest in South China Sea by China and other stake holders such as Malaysia and Vietnam.
The Natuna Archipelago is a group of 272 islands, with Natuna Island as the biggest island at 1,992.79 square km (more than 2 times the size of Singapore). The island is strategically placed right smack in the middle of South China Sea, between the Malaysian Peninsular and Borneo Island. To the east, it is 777km (419 nm) to Labuan Naval Base / Air Base, to the west, 575km (311nm) and 687km (371nm) to RMAF Kuantan and Gong Kedak Airbase (Su-30) respectively. South West, it is 565km (305nm) to Singapore, and north easterly, 655km (353 nm) to the disputed Spratly Islands.
The location of future Natuna Air Base will make it the northernmost TNI-AU base and allowing them to quickly deploy its fighter assets to South China Sea when necessary.
China’s southerly claims of South China Sea islands like Spratly and Paracel Islands could be a potential flashpoint with Phillipines and Vietnam, and the setting up of the Natuna base will allow Indonesia to be poised to defend its economic interest in the around the islands. All these development is also in conjunction with her Minimum Essential Force (MEF) concept, as Indonesia is recently beefing up her defence, including the procurement of Leopard 2 tanks , T-50 Golden Eagle jets and the AH-64E Apaches.
Currently, TNI-AU’s Su-27/30s are based in Hasanuddin Airport in South Sulawesi, and the northern most base of Supadio houses the short legged BAe Hawks Mk 109/209. The placing of Su-27/30 in Natuna will allow TNI-AU to have a tougher Air Force Operational Command (KOOPSAU) West, and protect her important economic interest in South China Sea.
The waters north from Natuna holds the largest gas reserves in South East Asia, and accounting to about half of Indonesia’s gas production. These gas are supplied to almost all neighbours including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Any disruption to these field will have serious implication to the offshore and gas industry, and as a source for power plants, a serious power outage in some country.
Like Malta and Midway, Natuna will make an excellent military base. Together with Matak Naval Base, Natuna will be Indonesia’s foremost guard post to the West, fending off/ prevent potential foes from entering deeper into the waters of Singapore Straits and into Malacca Straits, or on another perspective, blockading shipments into the Far East. And should tension escalate into a la Konfrontation, she will be able to cut off any supplies to and from Malaysian Peninsular and Borneo. The proximity of Natuna to South China Sea military training area could see TNI-AU doing more observation into Malaysian, Singapore, Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) exercises or even American carrier and LCS movements from a better vantage point.
Radar installations will be crucial not only for Indonesia’s early warning, but also fill in the black radar blind spot in South China Sea, post MH370 has seen that there are in fact numerous radar blind spots in the region, and with recent acquisition of new search radars, Indonesia is set to fill that gap quickly. No stipulated time is given for the full operationalisation of Natuna base, but naval and air planners from various militaries in South East Asia must quickly look into how Natuna will have potential effects in future military operations.