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The US Coast Guard cutter Adak patrols near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Photo: AFP

US plan to sell Indonesia a patrol boat used after 9/11 attacks sparks controversy

  • The 110-foot cutter Adak rescued people after the September 11 terror attacks and campaigners cited Indonesia’s terrorism troubles as a reason for not selling it the boat
  • Experts said Indonesia may be better off buying new vessels as retrofitting decommissioned US ships would be too expensive
A US plan to sell a “historic” military patrol boat to Indonesia has prompted backlash domestically from campaigners who argue the ship belongs in a museum and not in Indonesia, which they describe as a country “plagued by radical Islamic terrorism and human rights abuses”.
The planned sale reflects Washington’s commitment to building maritime capabilities of Southeast Asian states to counter China in the region but Jakarta may be better off buying new vessels rather than decommissioned US ships, experts said.

The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency on April 2 formally informed Congress of its plan to sell Coast Guard cutters Adak and Aquidneck to Indonesia for an undisclosed price.

Adak was used in the evacuation of about 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan following the September 11 attack on New York. The 110-foot vessel was also one of the four cutters deployed to Iraq during the US-led invasion.  

An image from a Facebook group set up to prevent the sale of the Adak to Indonesia. Photo: Facebook

The ships will be formally offered next month, 30 days after Congress was notified. In a statement to The New York Post, the Coast Guard said the decision to transfer the cutters to Indonesia was made “to achieve US national security interests” and it had been coordinating with the Indonesian Navy since February. 

An Indonesian Navy spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comments. An official from the navy media team said he had no knowledge of the plan. 

Aan Kurnia, the head of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), told This Week in Asia he had not monitored any plan by Indonesia to buy the patrol boats from the US. 

“We will boost coastguard fleets with new vessels,” he said via text.

Alongside the navy and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Bakamla is one of the agencies charged with monitoring Indonesia’s vast coastline, which spans more than 95,000km. Bakamla currently has 10 patrol boats but Aan last year said the agency needed at least another 67 to properly guard Indonesian waters. 

The Adak being loaded onto a military transport ship before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Photo: US Coast Guard
Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute but its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands overlaps with Beijing’s claimed “nine-dash line”.
Vietnamese fishing boats have also strayed into the resource-rich Natuna waters due to a lack of clear EEZ borders between the two countries in the area. 

Adak’s home port is in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. It was first commissioned in 1989 and is currently ported in Bahrain. It is scheduled to be decommissioned by July and the USCGC Adak Historical Society has called for the ship to be turned into a memorial and museum in Tampa Bay, Florida. The group has started an online petition to prevent the ship being sold to Indonesia, and more than 7,600 people have signed.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained
“The Coast Guard cutter Adak is a historic ship and worthy of coming home,” says the petition, addressed to the US Coast Guard and President Joe Biden. “We have a plan in place to make the USCGC Adak into a museum to showcase Coast Guard history and to serve as a 9/11 memorial.”
On its website, the group also says: “If we fail in our objective, a 9/11 memorial and tribute will become a trophy for a nation plagued by radical Islamic terrorism, human rights abuses and a complete disregard for environmental protection.” 

The group’s campaign has gained bipartisan support from three US congressmen – two Republicans and one Democrat – who sent a letter to the State Department asking for the planned sale to be reconsidered. 

James Judge has called for the Adak to be turned into a memorial in Tampa Bay, Florida. Photo: USCGC Adak Historical Society

James Judge, the group’s founder and a former member of the US Coast Guard, spent 13 months aboard the cutter while it was deployed in Iraq. He told The New York Post his group was willing to buy the vessel or cover the cost, at least US$75,000, of returning it to the US.

“We tried to eliminate every single barrier to the military,” he said.

The US Coast Guard typically arms Island-class cutters such as Adak and Aquidneck with a 25mm single-barrel chain gun and two .50 calibre machine guns.

“The military and the Coast Guard will have to demilitarise the boat in order to sell it to Indonesia,” Judge said. “There’ll be a cost associated with that. They wouldn’t even have to strip it if we were to get it.”


Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes
The sale of patrol boats to Indonesia aligns with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy of engaging Asian allies to deal with China’s growing influence and assertiveness. Indonesia is not part of the US-led Quad – which includes the US, India, Australia and Japan – that was formed to strengthen security ties to counter China.

Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington, said Indonesia was the third country in Southeast Asia earmarked for US assistance under the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative (MSI). 

“The Chinese have used their coastguard and maritime militia very effectively,” Abuza said. “For their claims in the South China Sea, those have been more important than the [People’s Liberation Army] navy. So the Americans clearly would like to build up the coastguard capabilities of some of the Southeast Asian states.

“It’s more acceptable and less threatening to receive coastguard equipment rather than naval equipment, so I think it fits into the US strategy very effectively.” 

The US Congress has also largely supported US patrol boats being donated to Southeast Asian countries, and the support has been “very bipartisan”, Abuza said. 


China’s most advanced amphibious assault ship likely to be deployed in disputed South China Sea

China’s most advanced amphibious assault ship likely to be deployed in disputed South China Sea

The Philippines and Vietnam have been major recipients: both have received two Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutters. Indonesia, however, has been less willing to accept Indo-Pacific MSI funding. 

“They have largely not wanted the assistance and a lot of it is based on national pride,” Abuza said. “They don’t like being a donee, especially in the defence realm [because] it is, to some degree, an embarrassment that Indonesian maritime capabilities are really so limited given the size of the maritime domain in the country.

“And we know from the horrible tragedy last week with the [KRI Nanggala] submarine just how old a lot of the Indonesian [military] equipment is.”

The 44-year-old submarine, which went missing last week, was on Sunday declared sunk in the Bali Sea and all 53 crew were assumed dead.


‘Till We Meet Again’: video of doomed Indonesian submarine crew’s farewell song shared online

‘Till We Meet Again’: video of doomed Indonesian submarine crew’s farewell song shared online

Indonesia needs an enhanced maritime surveillance system to monitor vessels in its waters and to combat illegal fishing, smuggling, incursion of foreign vessels and other illegal activities.

In January, Bakamla intercepted a Chinese survey ship suspected of deploying an underwater sensor in Sunda Strait. Last September, a Chinese coastguard vessel was discovered in North Natuna waters, leading to a two-day stand-off with Bakamla.

According to Abuza, Indonesia would be better off buying new vessels as retrofitting decommissioned US ships will be too expensive.

“The reason the US is decommissioning these ships is that they are old and expensive to run,” Abuza said. “There are other things that the Americans can provide that are much more important to Indonesia, such as radars and other types of surveillance equipment.”