Time for a New Defense Policy in Timor-Leste

Time for a New Defense Policy in Timor-Leste post thumbnail image

(Foto: Mapa Timor)

With Timor-Leste’s VII Constitutional Government soon to be formed, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) calls on the new Government, in particular the Ministry of Defense working in cooperation with the FALINITIL Timor-Leste Defense Force (F-FDTL) to develop an updated, relevant and achievable Defense Policy. Whilst significant focus has been placed on developing policy for the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) and supporting its implementation, defense has not received the necessary attention required for the F-FDTL to appropriately contribute to Timor-Leste’s national defense and security. The standing Defense Policy, Force 2020, published in 2007, has yet to be implemented, is overly ambitious, unaffordable and ineffective in orientating the F-FDTL for national defense and international security cooperation.

This new policy should identify the threats, challenges and opportunities facing Timor-Leste, what roles and responsibilities the F-FDTL has in addressing these issues, and formulate a course of action to develop the F-FDTL into an institution capable of national defense and international security cooperation. This policy should be inclusive of an integrated investment plan that that details the financial investment required to deliver and sustain the F-FDTL, inclusive of infrastructure, equipment and human resources. Recognizing this, what are the threats, challenges and opportunities Timor-Leste faces?

Having been brutally occupied for 24 years by Indonesia, and before that colonized by Portugal, the Timorese people have a long memory of and distrust towards foreign military powers operating in Timor-Leste, and the desire for national sovereignty and territorial integrity is an indelible part of the national psyche. Therefore, although invasion by an external military power is highly unlikely in both the near and far term, the capacity to offer a credible deterrent to military aggression from a foreign power must remain the F-FDTL’s first priority. Secondly, ensuring Timor-Leste’s maritime security should be the F-FDTL’s next priority, as Timor-Leste currently lacks the capacity to enforce its maritime security, which offers organized crime groups (OC) opportunities to engage in transnational crime such as human trafficking, narcotic and arms smuggling. Illegal fishing is also a threat to Timor-Leste’s natural resources, food security and prosperity. Finally, Military operations other than war (MOOTW) must be considered. MOOTW involves operations such as peacekeeping and support to civil authorities. Timor-Leste has the opportunity to contribute as a good global citizen to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping (PKO) missions, much as other states did during Timor-Leste’s post-conflict period. Participating in UN missions would also have the added benefit of providing F-FDTL personnel with much needed operational experience and an additional stream of revenue for Timor-Leste’s development. Additionally, challenges remain around the F-FDTL’s role in providing support to the civil power. Currently, the F-FDTL can only be deployed during a State of Siege or a State of Emergency after a joint decision by the Government and the President of the Republic, be this respectively for internal security operations or disaster relief. However, the F-FDTL has been deployed for internal security operations without said Declarations, and this sets a dangerous precedent for the unconstitutional use of the F-FDTL. The utility of deploying the F-FDTL for peacetime tasks such as disaster relief, as well as for infrastructure and medical support should also be given greater consideration.

Regarding the F-FDTL’s capacity to provide a credible deterrent to external aggression, the force structure suggested by Force 2020 is fiscally unrealistic, aiming to orientate a 3000-strong force towards having high-end conventional war fighting capabilities, whilst failing to recognize that even if such capabilities where acquired, the F-FDTL would still face severe technological and numerical overmatch from its neighbors. In the unlikely event of a foreign invasion, these highly expensive military hardware acquisitions would likely be decimated in the first few weeks of an invasion by an aggressor that would quickly achieve air and naval superiority over the F-FDTL. This is in reference to Force 2020 plans to acquire Armored Vehicles, Attack Helicopters, light Artillery, light Anti-aircraft Artillery, and a light naval force of Corvettes and Frigates armed with guide missiles. Such hardware is expensive to acquire and sustain, nor would it present a significant deterrent to states with vastly superior conventional war fighting capabilities. One only has to look at the difficulty the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) has had in acquiring and sustaining its more sophisticated surface warships, despite Indonesia’s greater human resources, and its technical and industrial capacity.

Force 2020 also makes the mistake of advocating for specific weapons systems in some cases, rather than specific capabilities. Examples of this include outdated weapon systems such as American M16 rifles, French Milan anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM’s) and M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC’s), the latter of which are of Vietnam War era vintage and totally unsuited for modern conventional warfare, and would place their F-FDTL crews at high risk if facing a contemporary opponent. Considering the history of warfare in the 21st century alone, it has been demonstrated that combatants engaging in unconventional warfare can inflict severe causalities on technological and numerically superior opponents with far fewer resources. Therefore, for the F-FDTL to maintain a credible defense posture to external invasion, it would be better off pursuing the acquisitions of advanced infantry weapons that would put at risk hostile conventional forces through unconventional warfare, namely heavy weapons such as Heavy Machine Guns (HMG), Automatic Grenade Launchers (AGL), mortars and man-portable Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and ATGM’s. Such weaponry would not only place enemy troops at risk, but also their Armored Vehicles, Attack Helicopters and Combat Aircraft, hence imposing both human and hardware costs on any potential invader. Additionally, such capabilities are widely available within a competitive global arms industry and could be acquired for a much lower fiscal investment than the capabilities advocated for in Force 2020, and therefore provide a much more achievable, sustainable and cost-effective deterrent to an invasion of Timor-Leste.

Regarding maritime security, Timor-Leste faces threats to its sovereignty and security due to the actions of actors engaged in transnational crime and illegal fishing, who take advantage of the State’s maritime security capacity shortfalls. That both the F-DFTL and PNTL have to date had great difficulty in deploying and sustaining their 5 unsophisticated and lightly armed patrol boats (3 South Korean and 2 Chinese) for basic law enforcement operations, fisheries protection and search and rescue tasks, reinforces that the F-FDTL is hard-pressed to conduct even the most basic maritime security tasks. This also reveals the absurdity of the F-FDTL developing a light naval force equipped with guide-missile armed warships. Therefore, the development of a sustainable capacity to conduct maritime security operations should take precedence over plans to develop a light naval force which would require significant financial investment and exceed Timor-Leste’s technical and industrial capacity to sustain.

Interestingly, the Australian Government has offered to donate to Timor-Leste two new Pacific Patrol Boats built by Austal in Western Australia, as part of the second generation of the Pacific Patrol Boat Program, inclusive of crew training and through-life maintenance support. This Program has already provided 12 Pacific nations with the capacity to conduct maritime surveillance, fisheries protection, law enforcement operations, search and rescue and humanitarian relief, which has served to deter illegal fishing and transnational crime, as well enabled support to civil authorities in times of natural disaster. This offer provides the most cost-effective and sustainable option for the F-FDTL to develop a credible maritime security capability, especially when considering the F-FDTL and PNTL’s track record in acquiring and sustaining second patrol boats from Portugal, China and South Korea.

Regarding the deployment of the F-FDTL for Military operations other than war (MOOTW) several factors must be considered. Whilst there would be financial incentives and operational experience to be gained through participation in UN Peacekeeping operations (PKO), this would require the F-FDTL to have up to a company sized force (approximately 120 soldiers) available for deployment, and require specialized language, cultural and civil affairs training, and potentially require the acquisition of Protected Mobility Vehicles (PMV’s) such as the Australian-made Bushmaster, for their safety in conflict zones. This would also require the development of a readiness cycle within the F-FDTL’s regular Infantry Battalion, with 1 Infantry Company readying, 1 Company ready and 1 Company in reset, to allow for the continuous deployment of 1 Infantry Company on UN PKO’s. For support to the civil power, expansion of the F-FDTL Engineering and Medical components should also be considered, both for disaster relief assistance, and for peacetime contributions to rural infrastructure development and medical support.

1. National Defense strategy should be realistic and affordable, recognizing the financial and human resource available to the F-FDTL and the conventional war fighting capabilities of its neighbors.

2. The F-FDTL should focus on the development of a sustainable maritime security capability for countering transnational crime and illegal fishing, and providing for humanitarian relief and search and rescue capability.

3. The F-FDTL should develop a readiness and training cycle for the Land Component to contribute Company sized contributions to UN PKO’s.

4. Expansion of F-FDTL Engineering and Medical components for support to the civil power during a State of Emergency, and for peacetime development tasks

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