By Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj*
In late May 2018, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, made an official visit to Australia where he spent two days visiting two of the country’s shipbuilders – INCAT and Austal.1 While the focus of his discussions with the shipyards was apparently the purchase of two fast ferries to meet the requirements of the Trinidad to Tobago sea-bridge, he announced intentions to procure “at least one” Cape class patrol boat from Austal as well as plans to restore to service six non-operational Austal-built fast patrol craft.2
Budgetary constraints cripple operations
The country’s national security budget has been severely curtailed with an allocation of TTD 7.625 billion (approximately USD 1.17 billion) being made in the 2016-2017 budget being further reduced to TTD 6.4 billion (less than USD 1 billion) in the 2017-2018 budget.3 It is therefore questionable as to how Trinidad will fund this planned purchase of a new vessel. The shortage of funds has decimated the capability of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force with the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard’s (TTAG) fleet of four AW 139 helicopters being grounded since June 29, 2017, effectively squandering an investment of over USD 348 million in the acquisition of the helicopters and the training of personnel. This was entirely due to the fact that 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.4 As aerial surveillance was an important component of Trinidad’s maritime security plans, the grounding of the helicopters, combined with the poor availability of the TTAG’s two C-26 fixed-wing aircraft, has led to severe deficiencies in the country’s surveillance capabilities.
This funding crisis has also adversely affected the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG), which is 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.5 At most, limited deployments are undertaken by lone vessels with other ships being operational but not sent to sea. This has led to crew deployments and rotations being severely affected. Four of the country’s patrol assets – the 46m Coastal Patrol Vessels CG-21 and CG-22, as well as the 54m Damen FCS 5009 CG-23 and CG-24, are effectively non-operational despite being serviceable for want of assigned crews.6 Even the TTCG’s largest vessel – the 79m Chinese built CG-60, is only marginally operational as only a skeleton crew is assigned to the ship. The entire maritime patrol burden is being borne by the four Damen Spa 5009 vessels (CG-25 to CG-28), which are kept not only serviceable but have full crews assigned to them.
It should be noted that there is no manpower shortage in the TTCG. While there are some deficiencies in the ranks of seagoing officers, occasioned in part by a reluctance of several mid-ranking officers to go to sea, all ships could be operational with trained crews within existing resources.7 Therefore, it would seem that budgetary issues are the primary cause for the TTCG’s operational deficiencies.
The Australian Connection: Unhappy Experiences
One of the politically charged utterances emanating from Prime Minister Rowley was his accusation that the previous government had run six Austal built Fast Patrol Craft into the ground and that they were now “gathering moss”.8 This is an unfortunate distortion of an even more unfortunate saga that led to the vessels being rendered unserviceable.
In 2008, Trinidad contracted with Austal for the purchase of six APB 30 patrol boats, each 30m long and displacing some 85 tons. The package included a five year comprehensive maintenance and support services program, which included scheduled planned and preventative maintenance support, unscheduled maintenance, management and performance of annual surveys and maintenance periods as well as shore-based engineering support.9
While this was fine in theory, in practice, the Austal APB 30s (CG-11 to CG-16) which were delivered between 2009 and 2010, experienced severe problems in Trinidadian service. The aluminum hulls of the vessels proved to be wholly inadequate for operations on the country’s northern coast and severe problems were experienced with marine growth. Between 2010 and 2015, the Austal FPB 30s were the country’s main maritime assets and they were tasked with roles for which they were not designed, placing undue stress on their somewhat delicate construction. Rather more puzzling were persistent electronic failures with radar and forward looking infra red (FLIR) systems becoming unserviceable at an unusually high rate – only one of the two radars aboard usually being operational at any time.
Further complicating matters was a complete lack of enthusiasm on the part of the TTCG’s engineering branch to take responsibility for the vessels. Despite Austal establishing an in-country support facility, feedback loops between the TTCG and Austal were abysmal with the latter often making pointed accusations of TTCG incompetence and the former alleging that Austal was not adhering to its commitments.10 The maximum vessel availability dipped from around four in 2013 to an average of one or two out of the six being operational – and this was while the Austal maintenance program was in effect. It should also be noted that TTCG crews loathed the vessels and with the exception of one highly motivated crew, vessel husbandry was nothing short of appalling.11
There was no political bias against Austal and an operational audit of the TTCG recommended that at least four of the six vessels be retained in service for operations in the calm waters of the Gulf of Paria on the country’s western coast where their speed (between 34-40 knots) and shallow draft would be most useful. However, the TTCG leadership showed no desire to retain these vessels with Captain Hayden Pritchard, the then commanding officer of the TTCG (currently Chief of Defence Staff), expressing extreme frustration with the vessels and viewing them as an unwanted engineering burden on the TTCG.
Austal’s Return: Curious Procurement Plan
Prime Minister Rowley, as part of his post-trip press conference, announced that an Austal team would be visiting Trinidad to evaluate the six Austal APB 30s and four derelict fast ferries with a view to reporting on the state of the vessels and offering suggestions to getting them operational.12 While there would be nothing objectionable in principle in restoring the APB 30s to service, one must question the priority accorded to this project while the rest of the TTCG fleet languishes for lack of fuel and questions would need to be asked regarding crew availability to provide manpower for the vessels and their maintenance.
Rather more bizarre was the announcement that the TTCG would procure at least one Cape class patrol vessel for operations on the East coast of Trinidad. Dr Rowley stated:13
“As a responsible nation … whatever else we have to buy, we have to buy two ferries and we have to buy at least one Cape-class vessel or something of that nature to protect our borders. …Our economic well-being is now anchored east of us in the area that we have the least ability to patrol. That is a kind of madness that this government will not allow to continue. We will take measures to protect our borders. … If we have to suck salt, if we have to work twice as hard we must, we have to protect the God-given assets we have and ensure Trinidad and Tobago is not an open territory.”
This is nothing short of absurd. The Cape class, though larger, is less well armed and less capable than the Damen vessels procured for the TTCG in 2015-2016 and has no systems commonality with any existing TTCG vessels. Furthermore, as part of its procurement plan, the Damen vessels were specifically selected to cater for the rough sea conditions of the northern and eastern coasts of the country. Moreover, the Cape class has been plagued with some serious problems in their propulsion systems which led to a “class-wide” alert in 2016.14 Moreover, the class has experienced some additional problems in deploying their fast Tender Response Vessels due to a design fault in the davit-based launch mechanism.15 This makes the procurement of a vessel of the class a most questionable decision which will add little to the TTCG’s capabilities while adding to its maintenance problems and logistics burden.
Conclusion: Politics or Purpose?
In Trinidad’s perpetual highly-charged political environment, facts and analysis often take second place to rhetoric in respect of any issue of national security and none more with issues involving materiel procurement. While Prime Minister Rowley cannot be faulted for wanting to restore the TTCG’s six APB 30s to operational status, it is odd that little effort is being made to provide funding for fuel for the TTCG’s existing serviceable ships.
Given the fact that Trinidad will have to pay to restore the APB 30s to service plus pay for the Cape-class vessel, questions must be asked as to whether there is any purpose to this procurement or if it is mere political posturing. It would be a pity if the Government of Trinidad and Tobago were to squander funds on the procurement of a vessel of dubious value and restore the ABP 30s to service when the TTCG itself has expressed little enthusiasm for the vessels since their induction rather than focus on meeting the formation’s urgent requirements for fuel so that their existing assets could be put to optimal use.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author:
*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.
This article was published by IDSA.
- 1. “PM in Australia: In search of fast ferry”, Trinidad Express, May 21, 2018, athttps://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/local/pm-in-australia-in-search-of-fast-ferry/article_6c47eaf2-5d22-11e8-a48c-3f22a2cc5171.html (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 2. Clint Chan Tack, “Govt must place order now: New ships from Australia, says PM”, Newsday, May 31, 2018,athttp://newsday.co.tt/2018/05/31/govt-must-place-order-now/ (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 3. 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 June 7, 2018)
- 4. 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 June 7, 2018)
- 5. Darryl Bodkin “Challenges of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard”, Linkedin.com May 7, 2018, athttps://www.linkedin.com/pulse/challenges-trinidad-tobago-coast-guard-darryl-bodkin/ (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 6. The author’s research has shown that officers above the rank of Lieutenant (N) were almost never assigned sea duty and some refused to perform such tasks.
- 7. Op.cit. n. 2
- 8. “Order Secured for Fast Patrol Craft Fleet”, Austal Press Release,April 22, 2008, at https://www.austal.com/news/order-secured-fast-patrol-craft-fleet (Accessed June 7, 2008).
- 9. At one meeting at which the author was present, in May 2013, Austal narrated an incident where a bilge pump alarm was deliberately taped down leading to the flooding of a vessel.
- 10. The author inspected several of the Austal APB 30s and noted that, in general, crews took no pride in their ships and vessel husbandry was poor. One crew, however, was a notable exception and their vessel consistently maintained a high degree of serviceability.
- 11. Clint Chan Tack, “Austal considers ship facility in TT: Vessels to be inspected”, Newsday, June 4, 2018, at http://newsday.co.tt/2018/06/04/austal-considers-ship-facility-in-tt/ (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 12. “Gov’t to order new ferries, patrol vessel from Australia”, Looptt.com,May 29, 2018, athttp://www.looptt.com/content/govt-order-new-ferries-patrol-vessel-australia (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 13. Nick Butterly, “Australian Border Force deny design fault in Perth-built patrol boats”, The West Australian, April 13, 2016, at https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/australian-border-force-deny-design-fault-in-perth-built-patrol-boats-ng-ya-103963 (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 14. “Sailors Ready to Rumble”, Sunshine TT, July 26, 2017 at http://sunshinett.com/v2/2017/07/26/sailors-ready-to-rumble/ (Accessed June 7, 2018)
- 15. Andrew Greene, “’Stop the boats’: $330m Australian Border Force vessels unable to launch response craft”, ABC.net.au, November 10, 2017, at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-11/failure-to-launch-vessels-designed… (Accessed June 7, 2018)