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Trinidad and Tobago’s Air Arms: Inefficient Duplication of Effort

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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  • September 21, 2016

    Trinidad and Tobago has no air force, yet, has one of the Commonwealth Caribbean’s largest air arms comprising of two separate entities – the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard and the National Operations Centre Air Division. For a country with decidedly limited numbers of air assets, having two organizations has led to duplication of effort and a faulty procurement process that has ensured no compatibility of either aircraft or avionics.

    The Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard

    The Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (TTAG) as an independent service has had a very short life, being formed in 2005 by Cabinet Minute #1936 dated 28th July 2005. However, the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF) has had a military aviation component since 1966 when the Air Wing of The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) was formed with a single Cessna 337 (serial TTDF-1) which served from 1966 to 1972 when it was replaced with a Cessna 402 Utiliner (serial 201). A brief flirtation with military helicopters began with the formation of the Rotary Wing Flight in 1973 with the first of three Aerospatiale SA-341 G/H Gazelles (serials 9Y-TFN, 9Y-TFO, 9Y-TFU) coming into service. However, by 1976, these were transferred to the Air Division of the Ministry of National Security which morphed into the National Helicopter Services Limited in 1990. It was not until 2011 that the TTAG would get an independent military helicopter fleet. 

    Besides the addition of a single Cessna 310 in 1985 (serial 202), the Air Wing of the Coast Guard stagnated for decades with capabilities being severely limited and aircraft being procured second-hand rather than new. The acquisition of an old Cessna 172 in 1991 added little to the Air Wing’s capabilities and it was withdrawn from service in 1994 but spent at least six years occupying space in the Air Wing’s sole hangar propped on tyres. The Cessna 402 was withdrawn from service in 1998 but again remained in the hangar on supports for at least two years. The late 1990s, however, were to bring a fresh lease on life to the outfit. At a time of enhanced counter-narcotics cooperation between the United States and Trinidad, the US used the Air Wing’s base for Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Blackhawk helicopters and in exchange, the United States transferred 2 seized PA-31 Piper Navajos (serials 203 and 204) and 2 Swearingen C-26A Metro aircraft (serials 215 and 216) to the Air Wing, thus infusing the stagnating outfit with new capabilities. The Navajos, after becoming unserviceable (the bane of Trinidadian military equipment) were phased out in 2009-2010 but the C-26As still form the most potent fixed wing assets of the force, renamed the Air Guard in 2005. C-26A serial 216 has been fitted with MR radar and FLIR while 215 appears to serve in the transport role capable of carrying 14 troops as far as Puerto Rico – a useful capability when handling disaster relief operations within the Caribbean. 

    The fixed wing assets of the TTAG, therefore, were limited to three serviceable and notionally operational aircraft – 2 C-26A and one Cessna 310. Total flight time in 2008-2009 was over 250 hours in 121 missions – a figure substantially lower than the norm in 2000-2001 when over 350 hours were logged. This figure fell further by 2012 when the Cessna 310 was withdrawn from service without replacement. In addition, the C-26 aircraft began to show their age and equipment problems with the Elta M-2022 radar on board aircraft 216 seriously compromised the efficacy in the vital maritime surveillance role. Acute shortages of spares compound a major serviceability problem that has only been partially alleviated through a somewhat uneasy partnership with the Canadian company, Provincial Aerospace Limited.

    The TTAG received its rotary wing assets in the form of four AW-139 (9Y-AG311, 9Y-AG312, 9Y-AG313 and 9Y-AG314) helicopters which were delivered between 2011 and 2012. Costing over USD 200 million, these four helicopters were plagued with a series of problems including structural cracks in their tailbooms and required very delicate handling in air conditioned hangars thus placing a heavy strain on the TTAG’s limited infrastructure. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that the TTAG had no trained helicopter pilots and was forced to employ foreign civilian pilots on contract while building flying hours for local pilots under some very generous contracts which worked to the detriment of the TTAG. The net result is that the helicopters remain severely restricted operationally, five years after induction.

    The National Operations Centre Air Division

    At the time of writing, the NOC Air Division is in a state of flux as its parent entity is seeking a new place in the revamped national security architecture of Trinidad and Tobago. However, between 2010 and 2015, it was a favoured outfit and received lavish budgetary attention, perhaps, in part because of its role in performing VIP transport missions for the then government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The NOC Air Division inherited assets from a defunct unit called Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), which, at its zenith, operated 4 helicopters - 1 S-76A+, 1 AS.355 and 2 BO-105 CBS-4 - and a Westinghouse Skyship 600. The latter became something of a national joke, with its enormous bulk being easily detected. When handed over to the NOC, the helicopters (apparently purchased second-hand) were used for a multiplicity of tasks. The aircraft were equipped with FLIR turrets on external pylons and Night-Sun searchlights. The S-76 and BO-105s were natural choices for SAUTT as the country has a long history of operating these types through its civilian National Helicopters Services Limited (NHSL).

    In two exceedingly controversial decisions, in 2012 and 2015 respectively, the NOC decided to lease a second-hand Eurocopter AS.355F2 at a cost that exceeded the purchase value of a similar used helicopter, the lease contract being decidedly in favour of the helicopter owner rather than the NOC, and thereafter contracted for the purchase of four Bell 429 helicopters and one Bell 412EPI helicopter. This purchase of Bell aircraft made no sense from a logistical standpoint as there is no equipment compatibility between the NOC’s purchases and those of the TTAG and places an additional burden on an already overstretched training system which is not able to meet current requirements.

    Duplication of Effort and Shortcomings

    For Trinidad and Tobago to operate two separate air arms with no equipment compatibility makes no sense. Furthermore, it can be argued that the procurement of AW139s for the TTAG made little sense given NHSLs successful record with S-76s and BO-105s. Compounding this error, however, was the NOC being allowed to purchase a substantial (by regional standards) fleet of Bell helicopters. This does not augur well for operational sustainability and raises serious questions regarding planning and procurement in respect of helicopter acquisition.

    Almost completely neglected in the discourse on military aviation in Trinidad is the long-suffering C-26 fleet. The need for a replacement is acute as the aircraft are currently operating on borrowed time as spares and support for the type becomes ever more difficult to obtain. Furthermore, the maritime surveillance role performed by these aircraft is crucial to the country’s border security and as these aircraft become progressively less serviceable, a huge gap will emerge in Trinidad’s maritime domain awareness.

    It is an unfortunate fact, and a damning indictment, that the country’s security bureaucracy wallows in complete ignorance of these matters, making no effort to understand the requirements of the TTAG. This has meant that opportunities to take remedial action to prevent a loss of operational capability have been missed and poor contractual arrangements have rendered existing assets less effective than they otherwise might have been.

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