Indonesia to deploy jets to protect Natuna gas field

INDONESIA will deploy six Nomad-22 reconnaissance aircraft purchased recently from Australia to safeguard the Natuna gas project in the South China Sea.

The head of the Indonesian Western Fleet Command, Rear-Admiral Achmad Sutjipto, said the aircraft will help naval vessels patrol the Natuna area and the Sumatran west coast.

“They will serve as extensive eyes and ears for the warships,” the Antara news agency yesterday quoted him as saying.

The six aircraft will be deployed in Kijang and Sabang, he said. The Kijang air base on Bintan island will be used to patrol the Natuna Islands, while the Sabang air base in North Sumatra will safeguard the Sumatran west coast.

The Indonesian navy conducts regular patrols in border areas, including the Natuna Islands, where the country has a huge gas project near the conflict-prone Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

While Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands off north-east Kalimantan is not disputed, there is a “a grey area” of 200 nautical miles surrounding China’s claims over the islands, which overlaps with some of the waters off the Natunas.

The seabed around the Natunas reportedly contain gas reserves of about 6.3 trillion cu m. The project is being developed by the Pertamina state oil and gas company, Exxon Corp, Mobil Oil and several Japanese companies. It is slated to release its first gas shipment by 2003.

Last year, the Indonesian military carried out its largest ever combined armed forces exercise around the islands – a move analysts saw as sending astrong signal to China of Indonesia’s intent and capability to defend the islands.

Rear-Adm Sutjipto said that the Indonesian Navy was giving top priority to enforcing maritime laws in the sprawling archipelago, which has some 17,000 islands.

The decision to deploy the Nomad aircraft to protect the Natunas follows the announcement that Indonesia will buy an undisclosed number of submarines to beef up its naval strength.

Military analysts believe that the recent purchase of the Nomads will complement the navy’s efforts to safeguard its maritime interests.

Indonesia received 14 N-22 and six N-24 aircraft from Australia last Friday. Powered by twin turboprop engines, they can hit maximum speeds of 311 kmh and can fly 1,352 km without refuelling.

A report by the Australian Defence Magazine said that Indonesia and Australia have developed a draft plan to defend the Natuna Islands as part of an on-going defence co-operation programme.

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