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Internal Security Challenges Preclude Military Reorientation in Trinidad & Tobago

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 15, 2016

    The Caribbean island nation of Trinidad & Tobago possesses one of the largest military establishments in the English-speaking Caribbean as well as a large police force. However, for an island state, the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF), which might be expected to focus on the maritime domain, has a distinct bias towards land operations. This is reflected in the personnel strength of the TTDF which is dominated by the land-forces element – the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment (TTR). The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) and Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (TTAG) are, by comparison, modest in size despite their importance for maritime operations.

    At present, the TTDF, including its reserves, numbers some 5281 personnel. Of these 2680 are in the TTR, 1557 are in the TTCG, 420 in the TTAG and 624 full-time and part-time members in the TTDF Reserves, almost exclusively attached to the TTR. It should be noted that of this force, over 500 personnel are assigned to the TTDF HQ which has become a bloated bureaucratic entity with little ability to direct joint operations.

    The TTR has been the senior formation in the TTDF – despite its 1970 mutiny and slow rehabilitation thereafter – and has had a major share of personnel to date. The TTR is organized into four battalions – 2 infantry, 1 engineer and 1 service & support. Lacking either armour (its Shorland armoured cars and personnel carriers are now all derelict) or artillery beyond a single mortar platoon with 81mm mortars which is now reportedly all in storage as no trained personnel exist to operate the mortars, the TTR is an infantry and support force with only soft-skinned vehicles for transport. The TTR lacks any ability to defend Trinidad’s territorial integrity from foreign aggression and is not configured for a dedicated counter-insurgency function either.

    In contrast, the TTCG and the TTAG are relatively well-equipped formations with the former possessing 8 modern patrol vessels – 2 FCS 5009, 4 SPa 5009, 2 46m coastal patrol vessels and 1 79 OPV and a fleet of fast 23 interceptors - and the latter, four AW139 helicopters and two C26 aircraft. While neither is able to actively defend against a major attack, the TTCG and TTAG are the primary instruments in ensuring the security of the nation’s maritime borders.

    There has long been a recognition in political circles that, ideally, the TTDF should be reoriented towards the nation’s maritime domain with the TTCG becoming the largest formation within the TTDF, with greater resources allocated to the TTAG. Indeed, a wide-ranging 2009-2010 study on the national security architecture undertaken by retired Canadian Major-General Cameron Ross (the Ross Report) recommended that the TTCG assume primacy within the TTDF as the nation’s security needs were largely located in its coastal waters and Exclusive Economic Zone where major oil and natural gas exploration is being undertaken.

    Within the TTCG, there is a view that the TTDF should be restructured along the lines of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) which is entirely a naval unit with marine and special forces detachments for land operations, with this view reflecting the views of the Ross Report. In Trinidad’s case, the TTCG holds the view that the economic importance of the off-shore oil and gas installations warrants an adoption of the Ross Report recommendation. This would seem to make sense as Trinidad faces no land-based threat to its sovereignty and, as an island, most of its security challenges, now and in the future, will come from the sea. However, the recommendation to reform and reorient the TTDF along these lines, though nominally accepted by the Cabinet, is one which has not been implemented to date and is unlikely to ever be implemented because of Trinidad’s internal security situation.

    Trinidad is plagued by an epidemic of violent crime where well-organized gangs vie for control of inner city areas and the very lucrative narcotics trade which enables them to procure large quantities of weapons. Many of these gangs, it is to be noted, who are affiliated with Islamic extremist groups have secured control over whole swathes of Port of Spain, the capital city. and have begun to expand their zones of influence and control. With private armies nearly the size of infantry battalions, they have begun to exert their power further afield, targeting the populous urban and semi-urban communities, in what is locally known as the “East-West” corridor – a prosperous largely middle-class zone of territory, running laterally eastwards from Port-of-Spain. Their writ runs over whole communities, and government control exists only nominally. Government services and law enforcement agencies operate merely on the surface with actual control resting with the gangs. Other loosely allied criminal groups, operate with virtual impunity in some parts of South and Central Trinidad, openly carrying assault rifles and other weapons. The gangs, by their presence, and the image of power and fear they cultivate, can attract aspiring, impressionable and motivated recruits. Embedded in the urban neighbourhoods of the country and targeting vulnerable youth, the gangs can exert maximum influence over their communities and, as has been noted above, have no problem in recruiting large numbers of “soldiers” to carry out their wishes.

    The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) should, with a sanctioned strength of 7500 regular (actual strength is some 1700 short of this total) and 2000 Special Reserves should, in theory, be able to exert control and authority over gang-controlled territory. Furthermore, the TTPS is well armed with assault rifles and submachine guns and is well-supplied with vehicles. However, the TTPS, despite being well-paid, is plagued by incompetence, corruption, lethargy and extreme levels of inefficiency which has left a large proportion of its vehicles unserviceable. Compounding this is an ineffective shift system that ensures that only 23% of the total strength of the TTPS is available on any given day. This unfortunate combination of factors has ensured that whole swathes of territory fall under the sway of criminal gangs.

    Into this quagmire, the TTR has been called in to play a major role in bolstering the TTPS by conducting joint patrols. These efforts have stretched its meagre resources to breaking point. Yet, so inadequate has been the performance of the TTPS that even the limited assets available to the TTR are deemed to be essential to efforts to control a spiraling crime situation. The TTR was even tasked to mount deterrent patrols with a view to establishing a presence in crime “hot spots” even without the police, and even though it does not have powers of arrest. The impact of these patrols was such that even the TTCG and TTAG were brought into the ground role and were tasked with mounting patrols of their own, despite their much more limited resources and lack of training in ground operations. Desperation seems to have compelled these extreme measures.

    With such an internal security situation, the TTDF finds itself unable to carry out reforms and reorientation that it knows to be necessary. Even the valid argument that a stronger TTCG which can seal-off the import routes for weapons and narcotics and so rob the gangs of their financial resources and “muscle” has failed to make the necessary impact among decision makers. To them, the need to have the visible presence of the TTR in the fight against criminal gangs, owing to the inadequacies of the TTPS, takes priority and, as such, instituting reforms and reorienting the TTDF remains an aspiration that seems unlikely to be fulfilled.

    The Trinidad Military, which should be concentrating on the maritime domain, is forced by expediency, to take on internal land operations.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.