Imagining War With Musang: What a Wargame Explains About Indonesia’s Foreign Policy


Imagine a hypothetical island nation close to Indonesia that has aligned itself with a rising superpower. Musang (Indonesian for “notional enemy”) has a main island and several smaller ones that extend close to a resource-rich region of Indonesia, and has moved military forces to the island closest to its neighbor. The potentially hostile country is newly industrialized and growing quickly, so it requires more resources to sustain its growth.

Terrorist attacks are plaguing the whole region, despite the efforts of numerous regional organizations, including ASEAN. Musang has stated its intent to counter the terrorist attacks with its arms build-up. Musang’s navy has also increased activity in Indonesia’s sea lanes under the guise of ensuring the safety of commercial vessels, specifically those transporting oil and other goods from the Middle East.

This hypothetical scenario was gamed out at a recent, weeklong wargaming session that I participated in as a student at Indonesia’s Air Command and Staff College. (The school granted special permission to write about and critique the exercise.) The robust scenario background led to an exercise in which 120 of Indonesia’s future air force commanders and leaders analyzed the situation, brainstormed courses of action, wargamed the selected solutions, and executed a hypothetical 30-day military campaign. The exercise is run four times throughout the school year, and the last iteration combines all three of the major-level schools (army, navy, air force) and the colonel school in a large joint campaign.

Of course, wargaming scenarios are never a complete reflection of a country’s foreign policy. Still, it is worth considering how the wargames that a country’s armed forces engage in reflect that country’s foreign and defense policy priorities. Indonesia has not waged a full-scale military campaign since the 1970s. However, the Indonesian military, Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), keeps in step with the country’s national project of defining and enforcing Indonesia’s identity as an archipelagic state by patrolling its air, land, and sea borders. Using its wealth of natural resources, Indonesia hopes to strengthen its global economic competitive edge. The military is tasked with protecting those resources and managing conflict that may arise in their exploitation from the most remote village to the edge of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Indonesia’s military training scenarios are more than training tools — they directly reflect the TNI’s threat perceptions. The scenario details are clearly written from the vantage point of a country wary of its neighbors and cautious about military cooperation with its partners. These security perceptions are tied to Indonesia’s identity as a non-bloc, non-interventionist and culturally non-liberal pluralist state. Indonesia’s military partners should not only understand Indonesia’s threat perceptions but also the worldview that underlies it.

The Scenario Unfolds

In the Musang scenario, violent radicals clash with Indonesia’s national ideology, called Pancasila. Pancasila is rigorously taught in Indonesia’s military education curriculum and is seen by the government as a means to advance tolerance in light of Indonesia’s linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity.

The scenario also describes a number of radical groups operating in Indonesia including Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and Jamaah Ansharu Syariah. The Indonesian government, in its resolve against violent radical groups, manages to disband Hizbut Tahrir but is less successful against others. The scenario continues, mentioning how tribal, religious, racial, and other interests inflame emotions and create divisions during local and national elections. Crucially, Musang will support even an Islamic State-aligned armed group to achieve its national interests. It should be noted that Musang, despite its name, is not yet an out-and-out rival in the scenario — the tensions build up later.

The scenario highlights the Indonesian armed forces’ unique sense of national identity. Pancasila, the ideology that Indonesia’s military so rigorously advances, is threatened by foreign ideologies, both religious and non-religious. Indeed, the scenario’s first invasion is one of ideas, and it threatens to break apart the unity of the state. The scenario also highlights the interplay between problems of violent radicals and more hypothetical external challenges — the game asks participants to imagine Indonesian terrorist groups getting support from an outside country that is not yet a rival.

The Hypothetical Road to War

Natural resources play a major role in the scenario. Musang tries unsuccessfully to establish programs for cooperation in resource extraction with Indonesia and other countries in the region. The country then inserts intelligence agents into a resource-rich Indonesian province to covertly conduct resource surveys. This scenario detail highlights not only Indonesia’s sense of itself as an economically competitive and resource-rich country, but also its wariness of cooperation with neighbors — a wariness that soon returns to haunt the country.

Things then take a turn toward the actively hostile. Purportedly in response to its unsuccessful resource extraction bid, Musang develops another strategy. Musang unsuccessfully tries to rally support from neighboring countries to give it justification for invading parts of Indonesia under the stated intent of fighting terrorism. It builds up its military infrastructure, command and control structures, and other war support materials on the island closest to Indonesia. After moving large portions of its air force, army, navy and marines to the island, the hostile country inserts more agents to stir up the population and create an environment conducive to a hostile takeover.

Musang aircraft fly close to Indonesia’s border and frequently violate its airspace under the pretext that they are keeping watch and protecting the region from threats.

The hostile country increases its military exercises, mimicking an invasion. During regional elections, Musang agents stir up discontent towards the Indonesian government. A number of NGOs are working for the hostile country against the Indonesian government, further highlighting the fear of internal subversion. Musang also increases covert arms transfers to rebel groups in the targeted region.

This hypothetical road to war indirectly reveals much about Indonesia’s strategic culture and threat perceptions. Indonesia believes future wars will be fought over resources as industrializing and advanced countries increase their dependence on raw materials. Notably, it rejected cooperation requests from Musang even before the country displayed any hostile intent. This is consistent with real-life experience in Indonesia: Military leaders often downplay the benefits of cooperation in resource extraction and processing with international companies and businesses from neighbors and superpowers alike. Political campaigns, especially given Indonesia’s 2019 general election environment, will interpret the threat in terms of political advantage.

Indonesia’s evolving identity as a global maritime fulcrum has led it to adopt stricter national policies on air and sea boundaries during Joko Widodo’s presidency. According to some analysts, Indonesia created this policy before developing a cohesive strategy or even a consistent understanding of its contemporary threats. The United States, as well as Indonesia’s neighbors, may not fully agree with Indonesia’s shifting concept of sovereignty, but that does not prevent the TNI from counting hundreds of perceived violations of its new water and airspace policies by neighboring countries and other regional players.

Finally, it is notable that the Indonesian armed forces perceive some aspects of civil society as threatening the country’s sovereignty, national security, and the Pancasila ideology. Outside actors, from individual bush pilots to capacity-building NGOs, are all perceived as potential threats. Indonesian authorities tend to view NGOs, volunteer groups, and the like — which, in the United States and other countries, are seen as crucial to a flourishing democracy — with suspicion. The very fabric of a substantive democracy is believed to hide the threads of dissent.

Indonesia’s Response

Returning to the scenario, Indonesia issues a number of diplomatic complaints at the regional organizational level, ASEAN, and at the UN, but to no avail. Indonesia confirms the hostile actions through a network of its own spies, even though the TNI is wary of military espionage, considering it a form of asymmetric warfare. In reality, Indonesia has its own intelligence programs, inside and outside the country, to support national defense, which it justifies pragmatically through the Pancasila philosophy. Finally, Indonesia announces a state of emergency in the targeted region after repeated airspace violations by Musang and large increases in weapons transfers to the rebel unit.

Indonesia arranges diplomatic talks under the auspices of ASEAN and United Nations, but the hostile nation does not attend, and dismisses the UN resolution condemning its actions. Finally, the government receives United Nations permission to declare war on Musang.

The Indonesian president receives approval from the legislative body for military action, to include pre-emptive military strikes on the hostile nation.

It is worth mentioning that while Indonesia actively pursued diplomatic channels and regional and international negotiations to solve the crisis peacefully, when the situation finally demanded a military solution, Indonesia goes it alone. There is no appeal to a collective security approach. Of course, this could merely be a facet of the scenario. Still, the omission of a coalition option suggests that Indonesia’s political identity, combined with its threat perceptions, make it difficult for the country to trust collective security initiatives.

A Reflection of Indonesia’s Threat Perception

What does this wargame tell us about Indonesia’s strategic culture? The economic theory in the scenario implies that growth will automatically translate to an unhealthy appetite for raw materials. Indonesia, rich in resources, is a natural target for industrializing neighbors and superpowers alike. There is a paradoxical relationship between inviting foreign investment, resource extraction, and the country’s own ability to process its raw materials: Indonesia requires foreign expertise to extract and process valuable resources, but at the same time, pockets of Indonesia’s military and political leadership interpret this assistance as exploitation. The scenario seems to imply that any attempt at extracting Indonesia’s resources, by mutual agreement, short-term lease or otherwise, could be a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty. The relationship between sovereignty, cooperation, and perceived threat in the scenario is difficult to reconcile.

As a country working to define not only its land borders but complete sovereignty over its archipelagic waters, from border to border and ground to space, Indonesia sees potential threats and violations to sovereignty from all of its neighbors. Even when these neighbors might perceive a shared threat, say against terrorism, human trafficking, or piracy, for Indonesia, cooperation is both a necessity and a liability. The scenario seems to imply that the tools and tactics of asymmetric war easily hide behind cooperation, NGO activities, sea lanes, and airspace access. Thus, the only ways to protect against the dangers of asymmetric warfare are to limit cooperation and tighten sovereignty.

Indonesia is highly skeptical of other countries engaging in military action in its neighborhood, even to counter a terrorist threat, as well as of repeated incursions, whether real or perceived, into its sovereign airspace. Despite the fact that trillions of dollars in cargo pass in, around, and through Indonesia’s waters every year, the country sees efforts to protect those sea lanes as an excuse to exert undue power. The United States, China, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, to name just a few, have all committed at least one of the perceived violations named above. Indonesia’s biggest threat perceptions come from neighbors and strategic partners alike.

To be sure, Indonesia’s main threats are internal, which is why Indonesia’s military and civilian spy network is largely focused on its own population. Indonesia’s threat perception is based on historical and current challenges in which Indonesia’s military has been key to uniting Indonesia’s 17,000 islands and disrupting a handful of regional rebellions. But the scenario addresses a potential problem that might require the use of military force outside its borders.

Indonesian Intervention

Given its skeptical attitude toward military action by its neighbors, how does Indonesia approach its own use of military force? Indonesia is a proud founding member of the Asia-Africa Conference of 1955 and of the Non-Aligned Movement that followed. To a great extent, the scenario reflects Indonesia’s stated (if not always heeded) identity as a non-bloc nation, as opposed to a nation whose security architecture is oriented toward alliances.

To many non-bloc countries, coalitions are for aggressors, even if they are formed to balance against a greater power. Indeed, many in Indonesia’s armed forces perceive the very existence of a defensive coalition, or even a collective alliance like the Five Power Defense Arrangement, as a threat. To be sure, the TNI is not against multinational operations. But the scenario shows that Indonesia remains ambivalent toward security cooperation though it is aware of threats that may merit it. The game straddles two worlds, one in which Indonesia is master of its sovereign domain and can address existential threats on its own, and a more transitional one in which the military is experimenting with greater cooperation.

In addition, as the scenario describes, Indonesia’s foreign policy takes great pains to maintain the moral high ground in international engagements — despite the purportedly realist doctrine of the TNI. The armed forces are not authorized to conduct UN peacemaking or peacebuilding operations — only peacekeeping. Indonesia would be reluctant to contribute to a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) mission, for instance. Its policy emphasizes dialogue within regional international organizations and when military action is required, working through the United Nations. In the scenario, Indonesia was able to obtain not only a Security Council reprimand against the hostile nation but also approval to declare war on its neighbor. (Similarly, in a follow-up version of the scenario, instead of attacking an enemy nation, Indonesia answers a UN request to liberate a neighboring island from an outside invader.)

Unlike superpowers, who can sometimes afford to scoff at UN regulations, it is common to find middle and rising powers like Indonesia relying more heavily on international institutions. Indonesia’s image and soft power competitive advantage are wedged somewhere between its identity as a tolerant Muslim-majority democratic nation and its sensitivity to military over-reach.

Of course, it could be said that Indonesia strives for this moral superiority in theory but not necessarily in practice. It is not likely that a hostile neighbor intent on invasion would sit idly by as its target slowly but surely acquired the proper national and international blessings to wage a war. More realistic, though almost contradictory to Indonesia’s non-aggressive defense policy, would be that Indonesia launched a preemptive strike on Musang without U.N. approval.

Implications for Cooperation

The wargaming scenario, while necessarily imperfect, cannot help but reflect a national identity of sorts — at least, it shows an image that Indonesia wishes to portray to the world.

At one extreme, an observer might perceive Indonesia’s military as an actor with an exaggerated view not only of its threats but its own capabilities. For context, though, Indonesia has experienced the blunt arm of imperialism, the struggle to unify in diversity and the occasional foreign intelligence service meddling, and is wary of repeating these experiences. Still, it seems that middle powers like Indonesia are quick to point the finger at neighbors and global powers for their security problems when more just and accountable national policies might be the better strategy.

Indonesia is the most important ASEAN player, given its size, its growing economy, its archipelagic spread between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and its position as the southern gateway to the South China Sea. But the country’s threat perceptions mean that its closest security partners could also be its biggest threat. It was a challenge, for instance, to coax Indonesia into addressing piracy in the Malacca Straits as part of a cooperative regional force.  In 2017, Indonesia’s military cooperation with Australia was temporarily suspended when an Australian military member insulted Pancasila.  And Indonesia has yet to stand firmly for or against any Southeast Asian country in their South China Sea island claims, even after a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Perhaps Robert Jervis’ work on perception and misperception best describes this environment: Shortcuts in security analysis and miscalculations of the threat lead to misperceptions that could stunt cooperation efforts. Misperception goes both ways. Indonesia’s partners must not only study and understand Indonesia’s security calculations but also find more and better ways to interact. Having participated in the scenario, I’m led to wonder: What about the United States, China, India, the Philippines or Malaysia? What might their wargaming scenario against a state actor in Southeast Asia reveal about their threat perceptions and misperceptions?

This essay itself would not have been possible had Indonesia’s Command and Staff College not allowed such close foreign student participation, which highlights a commitment to transparency. Indonesia deserves kudos for allowing its partner nations to learn about and respond to Indonesia’s threat perceptions in the formal military classroom.

Indonesia’s threat perceptions are not unbiased assessments. Rather, they stem from the country’s evolving identity as a vast archipelagic state, consisting of diverse peoples, languages, and competing politics. Indonesia has moral, historical, and ideological reasons for rejecting alliance, coalition, and collective security agreements to which almost all its neighbors adhere — including the Five Powers Defense Arrangement and, in the case of the Philippines and Thailand, alliances with the United States. It is up to Indonesia’s security partners to demonstrate how cooperation need not violate sovereignty. Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest country and most important military player. As a potential ASEAN leader, it may not need to choose sides in global power competitions. But it must develop defense policies that allow for sincere regional cooperation and, if necessary, military joint integration.


Major Caleb Slayton is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Air Force. Caleb completed his Air Command and Staff College in Indonesia along with 126 other local and foreign esteemed classmates. In addition to experience in Indonesia, Caleb has spent many years living and working in Africa and has written on intercultural security dynamics and how to build military partnerships.

Note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the United States Air Force, U.S. government or the Indonesian Air Command and Staff College.

Image: Indonesian Armed Forces