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Securing T&T's borders

The Express yesterday examined the cost of cancellation of a £155 million contract between the Trinidad and Tobago Government and the United Kingdom firm British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) Systems for three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).

The sum lost is over $1 billion.

The People's Partnership's decision to cancel the vessels was based on BAE's failure to meet set deadlines and their inability to properly engage the combat system based on the contract specifications.

Last week, after Attorney General Anand Ramlogan announced that there was a $1.382 billion settlement in its favour following arbitration with BAE, the Government said it was now looking to Colombia for boats to secure this country's borders.

In the conclusion of this three-part series, the Express examines the state of T&T's maritime borders and the rationale for border protection.

Part III

Asha Javeed

asha.javeed@trinidadexpress.com

"There was and remains the potential of strained relations between Trinidad and Tobago and neighbouring countries," said Captain Mark Williams in his witness statement submitted in the arbitration hearings between the T&T Government and BAE Systems.

Williams was the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard official who was in charge of the OPV project in the UK.

Protecting this country's maritime boundaries as well as stemming the drug trade gave birth to the Offshore Patrol Programme which was a product of the T&T Coast Guard under the Patrick Manning administration.

That programme aimed to acquire three helicopter-capable offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to operate in the internal and territorial waters of T&T, six fast patrol craft (FPC) to operate in the internal and territorial waters of T&T, six Over the Horizon Fast Interceptor Craft to operate as inshore patrol vessels and provide support to the OPVs and FPCs, 20 Interceptor Craft to be operated from bases, four AgustaWestland helicopters to provide troop transport and to operate in conjunction with the OPVs and a 360-degree radar system around T&T.

The OPVs, according to Commodore Garnet Best (retired), in his witness statement to the arbitration, were the most important and would serve different functions.

"The OPVs were intended to be our warships that would patrol and protect our maritime boundaries, our assets (such as our offshore platforms), our Exclusive Economic Zone and serve as our deterrent against our neighbours as well as deal with high-level terrorist threats with the understanding that the vessels were acquired to serve the country's security needs for at least 25 years," he said.

The OPVs, he said, would have also aided the Defence Force in civil enforcement which included drug interdiction, fishery protection and terrorist activity and assistance to other law enforcement and safety and security agencies like the Immigration Division, Prisons Services, Fire Services, Maritime Services Division of the Ministry of Transport and Customs and Excise Division of the Ministry of Finance.

Captain Williams observed T&T "is also a major transshipment point for illegal drugs to North America and Europe. Our intelligence indicated that rogue elements of the National Guard of Venezuela might have been escorting drug shipments to Trinidad. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (RFAC) also operates in our region and is known to traffic in large shipments of narcotics.

"It is important that in the context of these functions, particularly the offshore functions, the OPVs would be able to operate as a single maritime unit as well as a mother ship for accompanying assets. They needed to have considerable self-protection capability against both surface and air targets, given the types of threats that the OPVs and their accompanying assets were likely to encounter in their intended operations," said Williams.

During his campaigning for the 2010 elections, Manning had posited that the drug lords had wanted him out of power because of his goal to eradicate the drug trade.

Three months after assuming office, the People's Partnership Government cancelled the order for the three OPVs on the basis of their missed deadlines and their weaponry did not conform to contract specifications.

In its 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports, the United States Government noted: "However, the new government has de-emphasised regional efforts and assistance programme, including some security-related projects that would impact counter narcotics efforts, in order to focus greater attention on domestic issues."

On the OPVs, the Country Report on T&T stated: "There are no plans to supplant that deep-water patrol capability in the short-term."

It said the Government "struggles to effectively co-ordinate and implement its drug-control assets, and maintenance issues, corruption, and gaps in the legislative framework remain challenges."

Last Wednesday, at a news conference at his Cabildo Chambers, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan was asked whether the country's borders were now more vulnerable without the vessels, given that T&T is a transshipment hub for drugs and guns?

His response was: "Where is the evidence of that? Has the murder rate, for example, tripled as to what obtained under the PNM? There is no empirical evidence to support that."

His Government, he said, had a superior plan to protect the country's borders which was first made public by the Prime Minister in 2011 and which Ramlogan reiterated in Parliament last week.

It intends to use 70m Long Range Patrol Vessels.

The People's Partnership hopes to establish a Maritime Wall—manned by a multi-agency task force of police and defence force—which Ramlogan said would address the immediate requirements of securing T&T's borders.

"Under this new plan, vessels would now be manned and patrol our borders from the 2 - 12 mile radius around the island, working in tandem with the interceptors, and less costly but just as effective 70 metres vessels which we intend to purchase to secure our east coast," he said.

"Our new border protection naval operational plan will involve 12 Coast Guard installations strategically placed around the island, with fast patrol interceptors assigned specifically to each installation, and this will ensure that the country will now be properly secured, which could not have been done by one OPV simply patrolling 100 miles off our East Coast, as this is not where the majority of drug and weapon smuggling is taking place. What the PP Government would provide would be a virtual impenetrable three-prong defensive naval operational plan to safeguard our country," Ramlogan said.

National Security Minister Jack Warner is set to meet with Colombian officials to discuss the acquisition of a fleet of vessels.

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