Recently, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that it has plans to buy three new helicopters for the Timor-Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL). The acquisition of new helicopters would represent another step toward the creation of an F-FDTL air component. . As with any major defence capability acquisition, there are both costs and benefits to consider, which Fundasaun Mahein (FM) seeks to lay out here.
In terms of cost, there is, first, the price of actually purchasing the helicopters. While MoD has yet to identify the model it wishes to purchase, a standard US Army light utility helicopter like the UH-72 Lakota, which is built to civilian rather than military specifications, would cost around $7.8 million, meaning three helicopters would cost close to $25 million. Buying helicopters built to military specifications would increase the acquisition cost significantly. Second, there is the price of maintenance and fuel, which F-FDTL would have to pay continuously throughout the helicopters’ lifetime. Third, F-FDTL will need to develop infrastructure, including helipads, hangars and maintenance facilities. Finally, there is the cost of training Timorese pilots abroad, a process that FM understands is already under way.
While the costs are great, so are the potential benefits. Air assets allow the Government to perform a range of tasks that it currently has trouble performing without relying on outside countries. These include:
• Surveillance and Response: Helicopters provide critical ability to gain accurate visual information about security issues both at sea and over land. Border and maritime security often require visual confirmation of suspicious activity from the air. Moreover, air assets would allow the F-FDTL and other relevant national security actors to respond rapidly to internal crises, especially where overland travel is difficult.
• Logistic Support: Aerial transport of personnel, equipment and supplies would be of benefit to F-FDTL operations in mountainous areas with poor transport infrastructure.
• SAR – Search and Rescue: Search and rescue operations for persons lost at sea and in the mountains, or of victims of land slides, floods and other natural disasters often depend on the use of helicopters.
• MEDEVAC – Medical Evacuation: Helicopters can provide rapid medical evacuation services to Timorese and foreign nationals alike, and would be an enormous asset to the Ministry of Health, given that its current chartered air assets are poor-quality and require frequent maintenance.
• VIP Travel: Timorese leaders have often needed air transport for reasons of responding to internal conflicts or preventing conflicts from occurring.
• Elections: The process of transporting ballot boxes to difficult-to-reach areas, which currently relies on outdated modes of transport such as horses, would benefit from F-FDTL air assets.
As these examples suggest, helicopters provide a wide range of benefits, not just for national security taskings, but also in terms of disaster response, health, and governance. Thus, purchasing helicopters may well be worth it if F-FDTL chooses the right model for the country’s needs and develops clear policy for their acquisition, operations and sustainment.
Given the variety of tasks potential air assets would need to perform, FM recommends that the F-FDTL consider the purchase of light utility helicopters, based on critical comparison of available models, suitability, reliability and projected acquisition and sustainment costs. These helicopters are meant for dual civilian-military use and could serve a variety of functions, including the ones listed here. Moreover, they are are more affordable and sustainable. The acquisition of helicopters built to civilian rather than military specifications would also be prudent. This would decrease acquisition and sustainment costs, and allow F-FDTL to develop proficiency in light helicopter operations. Acquiring a more sophisticated capability would complicate their introduction into service and their continued operation, as well being unnecessary for the roles that would be likely be required of them.
The US-built UH-72 Lakota mentioned earlier is a good example of a light utility military helicopter built to civilian specifications, but capable of executing national security taskings, disaster response, MEDEVAC, SAR and logistics support. This is an example only, as there are numerous examples of helicopters with similar capabilities available on the market. As a small country, Timor-Leste does not need highly specialized air assets, but versatile helicopters that can fill a number of roles. By considering its purchase carefully, MoD can maximize benefits for the State and its people.
Therefore, Fundasaun Mahein recommends:
1. The Ministry of Defence and the F-FDTL clearly articulate the rational for acquiring helicopters for the F-FDTL, what tasks would be required of them and whether this acquisition is also intended to provide for F-FDTL support to the civil power
2. The Government, in particular the Ministry of Defence develops policy to sustain and coordinate this new capability
3. The Government develops the necessary facilities for maintenance and operations
4. The F-FDTL develops and sustains the necessary human resources to ensure their helicopter capability remains viable