Timor-Leste’s government just decided to join Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat program, which will supply two patrol boats built by the company Austal. In this program, Australia pays for the construction of boats that are then given to neighboring island states, as part of an effort to strengthen maritime security throughout the region. The government’s decision marks a significant step forward for Timor-Leste’s ability to patrol its territorial waters and protect its maritime resources.
The first boat should come in 2023, with the second one coming shortly afterwards. Prior to the arrival of these vessels, Australia will send smaller boats that the Timorese security forces can use in training exercises. The Australian Navy will also send technicians to carry out the maintenance of the patrol boats. Each patrol boat is 39.5 meters in length, 8 meters in beam (width), and capable of accommodating 23 people. The boats can mount three weapons each, and are equipped with sophisticated navigational and communication systems. They also have a range of around 3,000 nautical miles, allowing them to patrol the Timor Sea (south of the island). Such vessels represent a substantial improvement from the ineffective patrol boats that the Timorese government previously received from China and South Korea. These older boats cannot operate in the rough Timor Sea, leaving these waters almost completely unmonitored despite their economic importance to Timor-Leste. The Australian vessels will therefore allow Timor-Leste to patrol the entirety of its territorial waters.
Recent history has illustrated Timor-Leste’s pressing need for improved maritime security. For example, in September the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) had to use a boat belonging to an environmentalist activist group in order to arrest shark-poaching fishermen. This embarrassing dependence on a foreign organization demonstrates the importance of the new Australian patrol boats.
Previously, some people in Timor-Leste have expressed concern about accepting an offer from the Australian government. Their hesitations reflected Timor-Leste’s complicated relationship with Australia, particularly with regards to the dispute over the resources in the Timor Gap area. Yet despite this background, Australia and Timor-Leste share a vital interest in upholding maritime security. Porous ocean boundaries allow traffickers in drugs, people, and weapons to operate unimpeded. FM believes that Australia’s offer represents the most promising and cost-effective way to remedy Timor-Leste’s serious lack of maritime security capacities.
Once it receives these patrol boats, Timor-Leste’s maritime authorities should use them to combat illegal fishing, transnational crime, and illegal immigration. In addition, these boats should be prepared for humanitarian operations, such as responding to natural disasters, facilitating evacuations, and transporting medical supplies. The new patrol boats can also facilitate the process of conducting national elections across Timor’s rugged terrain. Lastly, the new patrol boats should be used to improve navigation skills among Timor-Leste’s security forces. The process of becoming an excellent navigator takes decades, meaning that using these boats to train experienced, professional sailors is a key investment in Timor-Leste’s future.
Recently, a small group of soldiers from the F-FDTL (Falintil-Defense Force of Timor-Leste) visited the South Pacific nation of Tonga to learn about how to use this type of vessel (Tonga is already in the Pacific Patrol Boat Program). This two-week comparative study is a valuable capacity-building effort that will increase Timor-Leste’s readiness to use the new boats. FM recommends that the Timorese government take additional steps to prepare for the arrival of these patrol boats.
Firstly, Timor-Leste’s government should improve the port at Hera. Currently, the Hera port fails to fully protect the vessels inside it from the open ocean, meaning that they are at risk of capsizing during storms. Furthermore, FM believes that Timor-Leste should aspire to hold joint naval exercises with neighboring countries. To achieve this goal, the Hera port must be expanded so as to accommodate a larger number of boats. Generally speaking, this port must meet international standards for a navy base.
Secondly, the Timorese government should realize its plan to form a National Maritime Authority. This authority would encompass the government organizations with responsibilities related to maritime security, including the PNTL Maritime Unit, the Immigration Service, the Customs authority, and other organizations involved in enforcing laws in Timor-Leste’s territorial waters. Coordination between these authorities is an indispensable part of maritime security. FM recommends that the government prioritize the formation of the National Maritime Authority so that it can deploy the Pacific Patrol Boats as part of an effective, coordinated system.
As Timor-Leste and Australia near an agreement on the maritime frontier, the acquisition of new seaworthy patrol boats will allow Timor-Leste’s security forces to enforce the law in the entirety of the country’s territorial waters. As an island nation, Timor-Leste depends on the sea for its economic development, particularly in the areas of fishing and tourism. FM applauds the decision to accept these new vessels and recommends that the government work strategically to take full advantage of this opportunity.