THE COMMISSIONER of Police is quite justified in wanting to add a highly effective air support unit to his crime-fighting arsenal. On the other hand, there is much merit in the proposal by the Minister of National Security to establish an integrated air unit which will be available to the various arms of the national security apparatus. This is warranted at this time because TT cannot afford four separate state-owned air units, namely, the Air Guard, Police Air Support Unit, Strategic Services Agency, and National Helicopter Services Ltd (NHSL).
Air assets are very expensive to acquire, operate and maintain. Therefore, air assets cannot be acquired willy-nilly, that is, in a haphazard or spontaneous manner. The mission for TT law enforcement air assets must be clearly defined as it relates to national security objectives, priorities and user requirements. Thereafter, an air asset which clearly suits the mission and represents best value for money can be acquired based on due process.
Air assets do not always follow the rule “one size fits all.” This means that an air asset that may be best suited for coastal surveillance, border protection and air interdiction may not be suitable for local police operations. This may require a mixed fleet of suitable air assets.
Costly mistakes were made in the past as with the AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters and TT cannot afford for these mistakes to be repeated.
On September 18, 2008, during the fourth anniversary of the commissioning of the TT Air Guard, then minister of national security Martin Joseph announced the acquisition of four AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters to compliment the three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) that were being acquired for the Coast Guard.
According to the minister, those helicopters, to be operated by the Air Guard, were capable of landing and refuelling on-board the OPVs. Their role, he stated, would include surveillance and reconnaissance support, border protection, firefighting, maritime search and rescue and air interdiction.
To fulfil their stated mission, the AW139 helicopters were to be equipped with an expensive state-of-the-art advanced avionics package for transmitting live video, audio and data feeds to the OPVs for onward relay to the land-based command centre for strategic and tactical decision-making.
On August 21, 2009, in a letter to the editor published as a commentary, then minister of trade Mariano Browne provided the financial details of the AW139 acquisition contained in the sale agreement. This amounted to approximately $2.2 billion.
AgustaWestland insisted and the government acquiesced in placing the AW139 helicopters on the local civil aircraft registry. This decision required compliance with local civil aviation regulations even though the helicopters, unlike CAL’s aircraft, would not be engaged in commercial air transportation for remuneration or hire. This was a very onerous and expensive commitment.
Another agreement was executed with AgustaWestland for an initial period of five years to provide flight operations, maintenance and training support in accordance with civil aviation regulations at a monthly cost of approximately US$3.4 million.
Bristow was the initial provider of these services on behalf of AgustaWestland and Bristow had to add the AW139 to its existing air operators certificate (AOC). An AOC is a certificate issued to an air operator based on civil aviation regulations, authorising the air operator to carry out of specified commercial air transport operations subject to conditions applicable to the aircraft type as contained in the operations specifications.
Subsequently, UK-based Cobham was subcontracted by AgustaWestland to replace Bristow and had to obtain a local AOC to fulfil its contractual obligations. Interestingly, Bristow soon thereafter began to operate the AW139 helicopters for its offshore clients and had a cadre of AW139 pilots who were initially trained at the taxpayers’ expense.
Flawed decisions caused the AW139 to slowly become a wasting asset, diminishing in value for money. By placing the AW139 on the civil aircraft registry, armed personnel could not be carried on board the helicopters as that would be a breach to the local civil aviation regulations. Coupled with the ill-advised and inept decision by the previous administration to cancel the OPV contract without proper due diligence, the effectiveness of AW139 helicopters was significantly downgraded.
Today Air Guard and Coast Guard personnel would have been very adept in protecting TT borders, particularly along the south-west peninsular, using a combination of the OPV and the AW139 helicopters in co-ordinated operations.
Deficiencies in the administration of the AgustaWestland contract due to internal bureaucracy within the Air Guard presented formidable challenges to the effective management of the AW139 fleet. As a result, there were many occasions when all four AW139 helicopters were not fully operational at the same time.
Another deleterious factor was the failure to transfer technology and institutional knowledge to locals during the five years of the initial support contract with AgustaWestland. Therefore, as locals were not trained and qualified to fully manage the AW139 operations and with the termination of the AgustaWestland contract in 2016, a proposal was submitted to Cabinet to engage another provider for AW139 maintenance support services.
On June 29, 2017, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced that Cabinet had decided that TT could not afford to spend $200 million a year to maintain four helicopters. This resulted in the temporary grounding of the AW139 helicopters.
Rowley was quite correct in questioning why the NHSL was not playing a role in supporting the Air Guard’s AW139 helicopters. NHSL at that time was in the process of acquiring AW139 helicopters for its offshore operations and was gearing up its operations and maintenance facilities to support AW139 helicopters. This underscores National Security Minister Stuart Young’s apt call for an integrated air unit to achieve more cost-effective operations.
In 2016, at the initiative of the then minister of national security, the local civil aviation regulations were finally amended to permit armed personnel to be carried on board civil aircraft during law enforcement operations.
It is important to note that there is no need for aircraft acquired for TT law enforcement purposes to be operated on the basis of an air operator’s certificate based on civil aviation regulations. The aircraft can be operated under a different regulatory arrangement that can achieve civil equivalency in safety standards at a much reduced cost. Decision-makers need to seriously consider this fact due to the very costly implications of the status quo.
Previous decision-makers frowned upon unsolicited pro bono advice from experts, especially when the advice was not congruent with their objectives. The result was that, with time, the failure to heed well informed expert advice resulted in the wastage of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.
Let us get it right this time.
Ramesh Lutchmedial is a retired director general of Civil Aviation