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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Building that border radar wall

NEWLY APPOINTED Minister of National Security Stuart Young led his first post-Cabinet media briefing with news that the Coast Guard’s radar system would be upgraded at a cost of US$7.5 million. Declaring it his first order of business, he claimed that the new and improved system would track incoming vessels from as far as Grenada.

“We’ve had concerns with how porous our borders are,” Young said.

This is not the first administration to express concern about border control, and it certainly isn’t the first to promise to dramatically improve the situation. The Prime Minister was warned during a July tour of the Coast Guard’s Staubles Bay headquarters of 140 illegal ports of entry on Trinidad’s coastline with another 19 in Tobago. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced afterward that the Government intended to buy two Cape-class vessels from Australian shipbuilder Austal at a cost of US$35 million each to improve the long-range patrols of the Coast Guard.

Austal built the six fast patrol Coast Guard boats bought by the government in 2009, craft which the government claimed were “left to deteriorate” by the previous administration. Of the 24 interceptors assigned to the Coast Guard, only five remain operational. Austal has examined these vessels and will make proposals to the government about their rehabilitation.

It should also be noted that these promises also follow the humiliating story of the sinking of a Coast Guard vessel while at dock in Tobago in November 2017, while Coast Guard sailors were alleged to have stood by watching it slip beneath the gentle island surf. In August 2017, the Joint Select Committee on National Security found disturbing loopholes in the security systems at the Point Lisas port and the south and north terminals at Piarco International Airport. The National Security Minister is also still to speak of the long-term plans for air surveillance as an element in the national security mix.

Since early 2017, the Air Guard’s AAW 139s, acquired at a cost of US$348 million along with required training, have been grounded for over a year, starved for funds needed for maintenance and fuel. Contracts for the purchase of a Bell 412EPI and four Bell 429 helicopters stalled after money wasn’t allocated for those purchases.

Drones are useful tools in policing and nobody’s ever going to say that they miss the hugely wasteful and ineffective blimp, but any strategy for implementing serious border control in Trinidad and Tobago is going to demand air support.

A focused strategy that makes the best use of limited resources and existing tools to deliver effective deterrents to the troublingly free flow of illegal guns, drugs and potential criminals must form the spine of our coastal defence planning.

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