In an unprecedented move, Australia and Indonesia are putting together a $1 billion defence package, covering the acquisition and deployment of air- surveillance and air-defence equipment, to protect key economic assets in the South China Sea.

Defence officials from both countries have been working since November 1996 to assemble a defence strategy for the Natuna gas field. The area, 280km (150nm) to the north-east of Indonesia's Natuna Island, is the subject of a territorial claim by China.

The Natuna strategy was due to be considered for approval by the Indonesian armed forces Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of April.

As well as calling for a strategic surveillance capability, possibly satellite-based, it also requires the purchase of airborne early-warning aircraft, more-capable maritime-patrol aircraft, helicopter- capable frigates, air-surveillance radar and surface-to-air missiles, plus associated command and control infrastructure.

An alternative to the use of a satellite-based surveillance system would be the acquisition of an over-the-horizon radar similar to the one being developed for the Australian armed forces.

Australian defence sources say that the strategy emerged from a force-structure planning seminar held in Indonesia in 1996.

The Natuna gas field, being developed by Exxon, is expected to come on line around 2003.

Australian defence sources indicate that "-the Indonesians want to use this project to begin their planning processes to overhaul their whole defence infrastructure and its co-ordination". Indonesian funding approval for the proposed acquisition programme is expected to be sought in the next few weeks.

Confirmation of the existence of the Natuna strategy by senior Australian defence officials comes as Ian McLachlan, Australia's defence minister, has acknowledged that a considerable shift has taken place in the country's defence outlook, with force projection becoming a far greater priority.

The strategy incorporates a concept of operations for the defence of the gas field. It also covers the equipment-acquisition programme aimed at giving Indonesia the capability to protect its economic interests in the South China Sea against regional aggression.

Source: Flight International