Hawaii-based soldiers are currently training in Indonesia as part of the largest exercise the U.S. Army has ever held in the country. Exercise Garuda Shield 2021 kicked off after the participating American troops completed quarantine.

The exercise occurred as the U.S. and China compete for influence in Indonesia, and as the world grapples with a new surge in the coronavirus pandemic. Indonesia became the second country in Asia to record 100,000 COVID-19 deaths earlier this month.

The Schofield Barracks-based 25th Infantry Division has played a leading role in Pentagon efforts to advance closer ties with Indonesia and other countries, although the pandemic created new hurdles for training efforts.

“Everybody that went forward was vaccinated,” said Maj. Tania Donovan, a division spokeswoman. “They’ve all stayed in the bubbles, they’ve all traveled together, they’ve taken very, very diligent steps to keep them together.” 

U.S. Army Col. Jeffrey VanAntwerp, 25th Infantry Division Deputy Commander of Operations, and Indonesian Gen. Andika Perkasa, Chief of Staff of the Indonesian Army, discuss upcoming plans during a visit to the Baturaja Training Area, Indonesia, on August 2, 2021. Garuda Shield 21 is a two-week joint-exercise between the United States Army and Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI-AD Indonesia Armed Forces) with the purpose of enhancing and enriching the jungle warfare ability of both the U.S. Army and Indonesian Army. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rachel Christensen)
25th Infantry Division Deputy Commander of Operations Col. Jeffrey VanAntwerp, right, discusses training plans with Indonesian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Andika Perks. Courtesy: Rachel Christensen/U.S. Army/2021

More than 1,000 American soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division, the 82nd Airborne Division and the newly formed 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade joined more than 1,000 Indonesian troops in the two-week exercise.

It officially began on Aug. 4, although some troops conducted airborne exercises before that. The maneuvers included island and amphibious fighting drills with an eye toward disputes in the South China Sea.

Each soldier took a coronavirus test within 72 hours of flying to Indonesia and another after they landed. They then went into quarantine before Indonesian military officials tested the Americans a third time. It took 10 months of planning. ​

​”All of the soldiers that went out the door, they were under the microscope,” said Donovan.

COVID-19 Preventive Measures

The first iteration of the annual exercise was in 2009. In 2019 the exercise included 700 American troops from the 25th Infantry Division, the Michigan National Guard and other units, but it was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

Hawaii-based troops continued training with Indonesian troops in other ways.

“This really is a continuation of the relationship that we’ve built with Indonesia, really in the last two to three years here in Hawaii,” Donovan said. “The 25th has really done a lot with them.”

Last year, Indonesian paratroopers joined a brigade of 25th Infantry Division troops as they trained in LouisianaShortly after that the 25th ID hosted a platoon of Indonesian troops in Hawaii and sent an American platoon to Indonesia. 

“I think that gave them a lot more of a taste of what was possible in regards to training here with the U.S. and what we were also open to in the sense of expanding the partnership,” said Donovan.

America’s relationship with Indonesia has been complicated. A ruthless military dictatorship ruled the Southeast Asian archipelago until widespread protests led to democratic elections in 1998. However, the military remains a powerful force in politics.

“Everybody that went forward was vaccinated.” — 25th Infantry Division spokeswoman Maj. Tania Donovan

U.S.-Indonesian ties soured after East Timor secured independence in a 1999 referendum, prompting government backed-militias to respond violently with support from elite Indonesian special forces. Then-President Bill Clinton suspended military cooperation with Indonesia and slapped sanctions on special forces troops accused of atrocities.

But relations improved after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Washington was keen to court predominantly Muslim countries as allies, and attacks in Bali prompted Indonesian leaders to pour resources into counterterrorism efforts.

In 2007, Hawaii’s then-Gov. Linda Lingle signed an agreement establishing a partnership between the Hawaii National Guard and the Indonesian military that mainly focused on disaster response training but also paved the way for further conventional military ties.

The Pentagon seeks to solidify those ties and troops in Hawaii will play a leading role in those efforts. In March, an Army contracting unit at Oahu’s Wheeler Army Airfield began soliciting quotes from American and Indonesian contractors to support operations in Indonesia through 2026.

U.S. and Indonesian troops listen to instructions during training on Oahu last year at the 25th Infantry Division’s Lightning Academy in Wahiawa. Kevin Knodell/Civil Beat

Human rights activists in Hawaii have objected to Indonesian forces training in the islands in part because of their role in the ongoing conflict in West Papua, where Indonesian troops have faced widespread allegations of human rights abuses in their long campaign against pro-independence rebels.

Indonesian troops recently went on the offensive in West Papua after the death of an Indonesian police chief during a shootout in April, with security forces implementing internet blackouts, allegedly displacing villagers and arresting journalists and activists.

However, U.S. officials argue they can’t afford to not engage Indonesia, which has 270.6 million people spread across islands that span both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Jakarta is courting economic investment from China, which also is eager to establish a foothold in the archipelago.

Indonesia, meanwhile, is struggling to both acquire vaccines and deliver them across its far-flung islands as the delta variant spreads. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi began a five-day visit to the U.S. on Aug. 1.

She met with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Aug 2. They discussed “the Defense Department’s donation of [personal protective equipment] to the Indonesian armed forces for distribution to the civilian medical system as part of the ongoing Garuda Shield exercise,” the White House said in a press release.

Sullivan said the U.S. would give Indonesia an additional $30 million to help in the fight against the coronavirus, bringing total American pandemic assistance to Indonesia to more than $65 million along with the donation of 8 million doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“There’s a lot of new elements to Garuda Shield that haven’t been there in the past, and that’s all in an effort to grow the relationship and the training,” said Donovan.

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