Monday 7 November 2022

Auguring The Future: Indonesia’s CH-4B UCAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Indonesian Air Force is currently undergoing a re-equipment programme with the aim of building up a qualitative and quantitative force to defend its territory and counter an increasingly assertive China. Among planned acquisitions of assets such as multirole combat aircraft, tanker aircraft and new attack helicopters, the Indonesian Armed Forces are also investing in the acquisition and development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). This has so far included the purchase of six CH-4B armed drones from China and the rumoured acquisition of Turkish-made UCAVs from Baykar Tech. [1]
An Indonesian interest in fielding UCAVs is believed to have commenced in the mid-2010s, ultimately resulting in an order for four Wing Loong Is from China in 2017. [2] This contract was abruptly cancelled in early 2018 after criticism that it did not involve Indonesian companies however, and the acquisition process had to be relaunched in November 2018. Turkish Aerospace Industries had partnered with PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) to offer the Anka-S for the programme, but in an unexpected turn of events the CH-4B by CASC was eventually declared the winner. [3]
An order for six CH-4Bs was subsequently placed with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The first two UCAVs arrived to Indonesia in August 2019 for a series of demonstration flights, and the type made its public debut during the Armed Forces Day Parade in October that year. [4] [5] It is unknown whether the deal also included offsets or a technology transfer to Indonesian companies, and if, to what extent. Indonesia's CH-4Bs are equipped with satellite communications (SATCOM), enabling an operating range in excess of 1,500km.
The CH-4Bs made their operational debut in a combined military exercise with the Indonesian Air Force, Army and Navy in East Java in September 2019. [6] During the exercise, the CH-4Bs carried out reconnaissance missions and launched AR-1 guided munitions against simulated ground targets. [6] In the period following the exercise, the operations of the UCAVs were mainly geared towards doctrine-building purposes and the training of their operators. [7] In August 2021, the CH-4B formally received its military airworthiness certification by Indonesian authorities. [7]
The CH-4Bs serve with Skadron Udara 51 based at Supadio air base near Pontianak, in West Kalimantan. Skadron Udara 51 also operates the Israeli Aerostar UAS, four of which were acquired in 2013. [8] From their base in West Kalimantan, the CH-4Bs can cover much of the Indonesian Archipelago with their operating range of some 1,500km (when using SATCOM). Supadio air base is located several hundred kilometres away from Indonesia's Riau Islands located in the South Chinese Sea. The area around the Riau Islands is currently disputed between Indonesia and China, which has overlapping claims with every other country in the region.

In August 2021 one of Indonesia's CH-4Bs was sighted with an unknown sensor pod under its fuselage. [9] Although the exact purpose of the pod is as of yet unknown, it is currently believed to be either a communications relay pod or a communications intelligence (COMINT) pod. This sighting also revealed the addition of a serial number to the fuselage (03) and the removal of the large 'TNI AU' lettering, which has been replaced with much smaller markings. The coloured Indonesian Air Force roundels have also made way for a smaller low-visibility variant, with only the Indonesian flags on the tails still in colour. The markings on the underside of the wings appear to have retained their large size however.

In addition to carrying a variety of sensors and dedicated ELINT or COMINT pods, Indonesia's CH-4Bs can be armed with several munition types on the UCAV's four underwing hardpoints. The TNI-AU is so far confirmed to have acquired the Chinese AR-1 and AR-2 air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) for its CH-4Bs. [10] These munitions have a range of up to eight kilometres and carry a 5kg (AR-2) or 10kg warhead (AR-1). [11] [12] The AR-1 is the standard munition of the CH-4B, and has entered service with all operators of this UCAV type. The AR-2 is a lightweight derative of the AR-1, up to four of which can be carried on double or quadruple launchers under each hardpoint.

AR-2 (left) and AR-1 (right) munitions seen on a CH-5 UCAV.

The experience gained with the operations of the CH-4B could one day lead to the acquisition of a larger fleet of UCAVs to provide a sufficient force to patrol and defend the entirety of Indonesia's sovereign territory. Whether this fleet will consist of more Chinese drones is uncertain, with Indonesia  having recently expressed interest in the acquisition of Turkish-made UCAVs. [13] What is certain however is that UCAVs are to play a major role in the future Indonesian Armed Forces as new types are able to increasingly replicate the effectiveness of manned aircraft.

[1] Indo Defence 2022: Baykar in talks with Indonesian government on Bayraktar TB2, Akinci UAVs
[2] Indonesia acquires four Wing Loong I UAVs from China
[3] Turkish Aerospace Industries Offering Anka UAV to Indonesia
[5] Upacara Peringatan Ke-74 Hari Tentara Nasional Indonesia Tahun 2019
[6] Indonesia tests CH-4B Cai Hong UCAV in latest combined military exercises
[7] Indonesian Air Force's fleet of CH-4 UAVs granted airworthiness approval