If you're a military aviation buff, the pictures emerging from Exercise Pitch Black, Australia's premier air warfare exercise, are spectacular. To see Indonesia's Russian-designed Sukhoi fighters on Australian soil and in formation with our F/A-18s is a rare and impressive spectacle. But it's also worth thinking about some of the background to all this technology. A few random points:

  • This is the first time Indonesia has participated in this exercise, and it sent its newest combat aircraft, the Su-27 and Su-30. Peter Hartcher wrote in July that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's decision to visit only Darwin on his recent Australia trip sent the message that he was not unhappy with the rotation of US Marines through that city. Pitch Black is also centred on Darwin. The Indonesian air force could have canceled its presence or downgraded it with older aircraft. It chose not to do so.
  • If that thought does not assuage your scepticism about Indonesia's military intentions toward Australia, consider this: the fleet of four Sukhoi fighters Indonesia sent to Pitch Black represents fully two-fifths of its entire 10-aircraft fleet (six more are on order). Australia has 24 roughly similar Super Hornets.
  • Indonesia also has two dozen F-16s roughly equivalent to our Hornets, but we have 71 of those. Indonesia has no airborne early warning aircraft like our Wedgetails, and we are acquiring advanced tanker aircraft to extend the range of our fighters.
  • It's not unprecedented for Indonesia to turn to Russia for military technology. In fact, it operated various Soviet types in the 1960s, including around two dozen Tu-16 medium-range bombers. It's interesting to note that the Wikipedia page for the Indonesian Air Force claims the Tu-16s were mainly anti-shipping platforms designed to intimidate the Dutch navy. 

Photo courtesy of the RAAF.