By the end of 2016, the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF) was experiencing a rejuvenation occasioned by an infusion of new equipment, support packages and adequate budgetary support. Between 2011 and 2016, the strength of the TTDF reached over 4600 active personnel and over six hundred reservists. The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) saw the induction of seven large patrol vessels, the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (TTAG) saw the acquisition of four AW 139 helicopters and contracts were signed for the procurement of four Bell 429 and one Bell 412EPI helicopters to augment the National Operations Centre (NOC) Air Division. New equipment for the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment (TTR) in the form of armoured personnel carriers was in the offing with contracts nearing signature.
Two years later, the situation could not be more different. The Air Guard’s AW 139s have been grounded for over a year for want of funds for maintenance, no payment has been forthcoming for the Bell helicopters and the APCs never materialized for the Regiment. More seriously, however, has been the failure to pay fuel bills leading to a drastic curtailment of Coast Guard operations as well as a cut in flying hours for the NOC Air Division. Most recently, there have been severe cutbacks in rations for the enlisted personnel of the Regiment with poor quality of food emerging as a major complaint.
In the 2015-2016 budget, some TTD 10.8 billion dollars (approximately USD 1.7 billion) was allocated to the Ministry of National Security. While the lion’s share was allocated to the 7000 strong Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), there was ample allocation to the TTDF and the NOC. Since then, and indicative of the country’s economic woes occasioned by the 2015 collapse in international oil prices, the national security budget has been severely curtailed with an allocation of only TTD 7.625 billion (approximately USD 1.17 billion) being made in the 2016-2017 budget and even that sum being reduced to TTD 6.4 billion (less than USD 1 billion) in the 2017-2018 budget.
While salaries continue to be paid – relatively lavish by the standards of both the non-energy sector in both the public and private sectors – the budgetary cuts have disproportionately affected operational assets and logistical support. The TTDF continues to recruit personnel into the Regiment and Coast Guard to plug existing vacancies but the logic of such recruitment is questionable given that the planned recruitment efforts will bring little improvement to operational or maintenance and support capabilities.
Air operations curtailed
The TTAG acquired four AW 139 helicopters during 2010-2011. However, on June 29, 2017, in an unexpected decision, especially after investing over USD 348 million in the acquisition of the helicopters and the training of personnel, the government of Trinidad and Tobago decided that it could no longer afford the annual maintenance costs of the helicopters amounting to some USD 29 million. Despite the fact that the TTAG’s AW 139 squadron had won awards for humanitarian assistance — and despite two previous administrations being committed to keeping the aircraft airworthy, the cost of maintaining the helicopters was deemed excessive. Since the TTAG remained entirely dependent on external contractors for the maintenance of the AW139s, they have been grounded since June 2017 in a closed hangar at the Ulric Cross Air Station at Piarco International Airport
This decision has effectively meant the grounding of the TTAG as its two ageing C-26 aircraft are rarely operational and in dire need of replacement. The inability of Trinidad to create a local maintenance infrastructure has now come to haunt the TTAG and its continuing existence may be doubtful as its separate establishment and attendant administrative costs may no longer be deemed warranted.
While the TTAG grapples to justify its existence, Trinidad’s other national security helicopter unit, the NOC Air Division – is facing severe challenges of its own. Flying hours have been savagely cut from over three hundred hours per year on average per pilot, to under one hundred with standing air surveillance patrols coming to a halt. While at least part of the reduction in flying hours has been caused by curtailing the use of the NOC Air Division helicopters as VIP transports, the cuts to air patrols have proved to be detrimental to the unit’s response time to incidents.
This situation has been worsened by the failure to completely integrate Harris secure communications suites before the removal of earlier Motorola equipment leading to a virtual breakdown in real-time communication between the Air Division’s helicopters and ground units. In addition, and somewhat inexplicably, the night-surveillance systems fitted to the NOC’s three helicopters (a single AS.355 and two Bo.105) is now non-operational and have been removed from the aircraft pending repairs which have not taken place to date – the equipment remaining in boxes at the Air Division’s base in Central Trinidad.
An attempt to replace the NOC Air Division’s ageing assets with a new fleet of four Bell 429 and one Bell 412EPI helicopters has become embroiled in a dispute with the government facing legal action over non-payment for both the helicopters and a special hangar for the aircraft. Compounding these equipment issues was the non-payment of salaries to pilots which led to a “sick-out” by aircrew, effectively grounding the Air Division briefly while the government sought to make the requisite payments.
TTCG and TTR – Food and Fuel Fiasco
In October 2017, the TTCG was at the forefront of efforts to provide relief to the hurricane ravaged island of Dominica. Deploying no fewer than three vessels to the Dominica relief effort, the TTCG’s fleet of Damen patrol and utility vessels alongside its largest vessel, the 79m OPV purchased from China, delivered much needed assistance to Dominica, earning much local praise. The first vessel dispatched was the Damen SPa 5009 vessel TTS Moruga which transported “food, water, generators and a 21-member disaster relief team which assisted in securing and managing the distribution of relief items. Subsequently the Damen FCS 5009 TTS Brighton and the TTS Nelson II were also dispatched to provide further disaster relief.
This relatively intense deployment masked a major problem within the TTCG as fuel, obtained on credit, was not being paid for. As a result, despite its activity during the Dominica relief effort, the TTCG has been unable to pay for a regular supply of fuel for its vessels. This has meant that the formation lacks the ability to deploy its eight large patrol vessels effectively and cannot conduct sustained operations even in Trinidad’s coastal waters. At most, limited deployments are undertaken by lone vessels with other ships being operational but not sent out to sea.
A more pressing issue, plaguing both the TTCG and the TTR relates to the quality and quantity of food supplied to personnel on duty. The TTCG has already cut working hours of a substantial number of personnel to between 0830 and 1300hrs daily to avoid needing to feed them breakfast or lunch. In addition, personnel going to sea are apparently provided with either no rations or inadequate rations leading many to purchase their own food supplies for such deployments.
In the case of the TTR, the budget for rations has been cut from TTD 17 million (approximately USD 2.5 million) in 2017 to TTD 4 million (approximately USD 0.8 million) for 2018. This has led to a spate of discontent over poor quality food being supplied to soldiers despite salary deductions amounting to nearly one-third of their basic pay for rations monthly. What has provoked great concern among enlisted personnel in both the TTR and TTCG is the fact that the food supplied to the officer corps is of substantially better quality and quantity, with the officers’ messes and wardrooms being lavishly supplied while basic commodities such as tea and coffee are missing from the ration rooms of the enlisted personnel.
A potential crisis – Sensitive leadership is needed
The current situation is exacerbated by an apparently widening distrust between officers and enlisted personnel. The TTR mutinied once in 1970, at least in part because of a breakdown in trust between senior officers and junior personnel. While there is no indication that such a mutiny is in the offing, the chorus of complaints and frustration seems to be mounting as the TTDF seems incapable of meeting either its operational commitments or care for its personnel adequately.
At a time when budgetary support is not forthcoming, it is incumbent on the TTDF leadership – and the Chief of Defence Staff in particular – to be sensitive to the complaints of the enlisted personnel under their command. Furthermore, middle-rank and junior officers will need to display greater concern towards their subordinates and to ensure that any cuts are borne equally by both the officer corps and other ranks. Unfortunately, there is a legitimate concern that the TTDF officer corps has become somewhat self-centred and too many officers lack the requisite leadership qualities to deal with the concerns of those they command. It remains to be seen whether the TTDF officer corps can rise to the occasion and preserve the operational capability of the force as well as address the concerns being expressed by their subordinates.
- Dareece Polo, “Budget 2018: $6.4 billion for National Security Ministry”, Loop TT, October 2, 2017, at http://www.looptt.com/content/budget-2018-64-billion-national-security-ministry (Accessed April 5, 2018).
- Darlisha Ghouralal, “Helicopters grounded: $200m maintenance too costly”, LoopTT, June 30, 2017, at http://www.looptt.com/content/helicopters-grounded-200m-maintenance-too-costly (Accessed 5 April 2018)
- “Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard Helicopters grounded as government refuses $28.75 million maintenance obligation”, Helicopter News Wire, July 13, 2017, at http://helicopternewswire.com/trinidad-tobago-air-guard-helicopters-grounded-government-refuses-28-75-million-maintenance-obligation/ (Accessed April 5, 2018).
- Telephone conversation with NOC Air Division Senior Pilot dated November 24, 2017.
- Anna Ramdass, “Govt faces legal action over contract for helicopters, hangar”, Trinidad Express,October 13, 2017, at https://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/local/govt-faces-legal-action-over-contract-for-helicopters-hangar/article_305c4f1f-25af-54d9-9b13-997ba36b881c.html (Accessed April 5, 2018).
- Khamal Georges, “Pay protest at Air Division grounds security copters”, Trinidad Guardian, February 27, 2018, at http://www.guardian.co.tt/news/2018-02-26/pay-protest-air-division-grounds-security-copters (Accessed April 5, 2018).
- Sasha Harrinanan, “Coast Guard provides swift aid to Dominica” Trinidad Newsday,September 22, 2017,at http://newsday.co.tt/2017/09/22/coast-guard-provides-swift-aid-to-dominica/ (Accessed December 5, 2017).
- “TTS NELSON II LEAVES FOR DOMINICA” Trinidad and Tobago Facebook Page, October 10, 2017, at https://www.facebook.com/pg/Trinidad-Tobago-Coast-Guard-621931181194075/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1480087155378469 (Accessed December 5, 2017).
- “Sailors Ready to Rumble”, Sunshine TT,July 26, 2017, at http://sunshinett.com/v2/2017/07/26/sailors-ready-to-rumble/ (Accessed April 5, 2018); Also, telephone discussion with senior TTCG officer, December 27, 2018.
- Conversation with former TTCG officer, March 25, 2018.
- Nalinee Seelal, “Soldiers gripe over diet” Newsday,March 23, 2018,at http://newsday.co.tt/2018/03/23/soldiers-gripe-over-diet/ (Accessed April 5, 2018)
- The author has noted this concern expressed by serving and retired officers. He has further observed the same during his tenure on the Defence Force Commissions Board between 2010 and 2016.