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Rebuilding the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard

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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  • August 26, 2016

    At the Visakhapatnam International Fleet Review 2016, a ship graced the show with her presence – the Brazilian Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) BN Amazonas (P120), commanded by Commander Alessander Felipe Imamura Carneiro. While this ship would have gone largely unnoticed by the naval fraternity, being as it is of sound but unspectacular design and performance, the vessel has a peculiar significance for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) as it was originally built for the latter and was very nearly commissioned as the TTS Port of Spain as part of an order for three OPVs. However, in an abrupt and controversial decision, the order was cancelled in September 2010, following a change in government in May 2010. Combined with poor serviceability of surviving assets, the TTCG was in crisis and this led to a scramble for assets between the years 2013 and 2015, which culminated in the procurement of a fleet of vessels that have restored a degree of capability and viability to the TTCG.

    Importance of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard

    The TTCG is the largest naval unit of the English-speaking Caribbean, with over 1400 personnel. Having responsibility for the security of the maritime domain of the Southernmost island of the Caribbean archipelago, it must contend with the trade in illegal narcotics and weapons that emanates from South America. The capability and operational efficacy of the TTCG, therefore, has a direct bearing on the ability to interdict or deter the shipment of such contraband from the South American mainland. In addition, the TTCG is responsible for the security of Trinidad and Tobago’s large off-shore oil and natural gas facilities and has, as the one of only two Caribbean forces capable of conducting long-range humanitarian and disaster relief operations (the other being the Bahamas), assisted other Caribbean nations in post-disaster recovery.

    Rise and Fall of the TTCG Surface Fleet

    The TTCG began its operational history with two 103-feet Vosper Ltd patrol boats – the TTS Trinity (CG-1) and the TTS Courland Bay (CG-2) – commissioned on 20 February 1965, each 31.4 metres long and displacing 123 tons. These were followed by TTS Chaguaramas (CG-3) and the TTS Buccoo Reef (CG-4), commissioned on 18 March 1972, each 31.5 metres long and displacing 125 tons. CG-1 and CG-2 were decommissioned in 1986 and CG-3 and CG-4 in 1992.

    These Vospers were followed on 15 June 1980 by two modified Spica class vessels – TTS Barracuda (CG-5) and TTS Cascadura (CG-6) – each 40.6 metres long and displacing 210 tons. Following a failed attempt at local repair and refurbishment, these vessels were decommissioned after nearly 15 years of inactivity. CG-5 was scrapped. While CG-6 remains ostensibly in commission at Chaguaramas Heliport, it is completely derelict, bereft of sensors, engines, weapons and accommodation.

    On 27 August 1982, four Souter Wasp 17 metre class (TTS Plymouth CG27, TTS Caroni CG28, TTS Galeota CG29, TTS Moruga CG30) were commissioned. In addition, the Coast Guard was augmented in the mid-to-late 1980s with vessels from the disbanded Police Marine Branch – one Sword Class patrol craft (TTS Matelot CG 33) and two Wasp 20 metre class (TTS Kairi CG31 & TTS Moriah CG 32) patrol craft. All of these vessels have now been decommissioned.

    The years 1986 to 1995 saw the decommissioning of almost all of the TTCG patrol assets and the de facto retirement of CG-5 and CG-6 for want of serviceability as well as the inability of the TTCG to undertake routine maintenance due to severe funding shortfalls. This left the formation incapable of performing its assigned tasks on any sort of credible basis. This period, not surprisingly, saw a significant increase in narcotics and illegal weapons being shipped through Trinidadian waters.

    After a number of years with almost no serviceable vessels, the period 1999-2001 saw the TTCG receive a boost with the acquisition of vessels over 20 years old including the ex-Royal Navy Island class OPV, HMS Orkney as the TTS Nelson (CG-20) and four 82 feet Point-class cutters, each displacing some 66 tons, from the United States (TTS Corozal Point CG7, TTS Crown Point CG8, TTS Galera Point CG9 and TTS Bacolet Point CG10). The Point class cutters were nominally on strength until 2009-10 when they were decommissioned, although, in reality, they had been unseaworthy for some years before. Not a single new-build patrol vessel was acquired between 1980 and 2009.

    In 2003-2004, the then Government of Patrick Manning began a phased expansion of the formation including the purchase of six new Austal PB30 Fast Patrol Craft (FPC) – CG11 TTS Scarlet Ibis, CG12 TTS Hibiscus, CG13 TTS Humming Bird, CG14 TTS Chaconia, CG 15 TTS Poui and CG16 TTS Teak – commissioned between 2009-2010, and two modified oilrig support vessels – each over 15 years old – armed and re-tasked as Coastal Patrol Vessels (CPVs) – CG-21 TTS Gaspar Grande and CG-22 TTS Chacachare – commissioned on 23 April 2008. In addition, four Midnight Express Interceptors were delivered in 2005 and were extensively deployed in anti-narcotics operations.

    The “crown jewels” of this expansion plan were three 90m long OPVs – to be named the Port of Spain, Scarborough and San Fernando – ordered from VT Shipbuilding (later BAE Systems Surface Ships). Easily the most advanced vessels to have been ordered by any coast guard in the English-speaking Caribbean, the OPVs were adequately armed with 25 mm and 30 mm guns and possessed the ability to stage medium-lift helicopters from their flight decks. However, an overly-ambitious integrated fire-control system and some unrealistic expectations from the TTCG in respect of the performance of the 30 mm guns led to significant delays and problems during trials. In September 2010, the Government of then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar cancelled the contract, overruling advice from the TTCG and the then Minister of National Security, Brigadier (retired) John Sandy.

    Compounding the cancellation of the OPVs, archaic bureaucratic procedures together with shortcomings in the engineering and maintenance branches of the TTCG combined to cripple efforts to maintain the fleet’s serviceability. A previous government attempted to circumvent these problems by entering into comprehensive logistics and support arrangements with VT and Austal. However, the former was stillborn because of the cancellation of the OPV contract and the latter never worked as planned because of inherent deficiencies in the TTCG maintenance structure with the result that the vessels had a dismal record in service.

    By 2013, the TTCG was in dire straits and an operational audit of its assets revealed the extremely poor state of repair of the surface fleet:

    Type Quantity Age (years) Assigned Area of Operation Status

    TTS Nelson
    1 37 Offshore – EEZ and beyond Unserviceable
    CPV      Offshore  & Territorial Sea Unserviceable
    Chacachacare 2 19
    Gaspar Grande   17
    Austal Built FPCs  
    Territorial Sea & Inshore  Serviceability is variable.

    2 serviceable, 4 unserviceable.
    Interceptors 17 2-4 Inshore &  Internal Waters 4 serviceable, 13 unserviceable.

    Source: Author’s own research

    Rebuilding the TTCG Surface Fleet

    In January 2014, the Government appointed a professional Naval Assets Acquisition Implementation Team (NAAIT) and tasked it with procuring, inter alia, seven new CPVs and two OPVs (now curiously termed Long-Range Patrol Vessels or LRPVs) within the very short period of two years. For budgetary reasons, the numbers were reduced to four CPVs and one LRPV. The new procurement attracted some international attention and shipyards invited the NAAIT to inspect the yards and the products available. Directed by the Government, the NAAIT visited the Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) shipyard in Ulsan, Republic of Korea, the China State Shipbuilding Company (CSSC) in Guangzhou, COTECMAR at Cartagena, Colombia, and Damen Shipyards Ltd at Gorinchem, Holland.

    After deliberating and assessing the vessels and designs on offer, the NAAIT recommended that the four CPVs be acquired from Damen with two additional vessels of a similar design being acquired as “utility vessels” but so armed and equipped that they could augment the four dedicated CPVs in the patrol role, all six vessels being covered by a maintenance and spares support package. The vessels selected were the SPa 5009 CPV and the FCS 5009 utility vessel. The CPVs were fitted with a surveillance system that drew heavily on high-end civilian products. In addition, they were fitted with a remotely controlled 20 mm gun. The FCS 5009 was delivered in standard configuration but with accommodation increased for a larger crew, a manually operated 20 mm gun (from TTCG stocks) and a slightly enhanced surveillance fit. Delivery of the FCS 5009s was completed by mid-2015, while two of the four CPVs have already been delivered.

    The LRPV procurement was not so fortunate. NAAIT’s recommendation for a formal Request for Proposals to be sent out to all the shipyards visited by the team was initially approved and then circumvented by the direct intervention of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar who decided, against advice, to procure a ready-made, unarmed, LRPV from CSSC of China. The latter compared unfavourably with the cancelled OPVs, but the vessel was available and delivery was effected in late 2015, providing a questionable boost to the TTCG fleet. The TTCG made efforts to revive its engineering and maintenance facilities and restore to service inactive vessels. Some success has been achieved in this regard with CG-21 and CG-22 being refitted locally and will soon rejoin the fleet.

    When the procurement of these vessels is complete, the TTCG will have no fewer than eight 46-50 metre patrol and utility vessels in service plus a 79 metre LRPV. Of these, the LRPV and six of the eight smaller vessels are new ships and this acquisition is the biggest successful acquisition programme in the history of the TTCG. These assets would give the TTCG the ability to conduct effective surveillance and interdiction operations within its maritime domain. But, the sustainability of these assets is dependent on the TTCG showing the determination to learn from its mistakes and creating a responsive and capable maintenance infrastructure to support its operational assets.

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