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One Hundred Thousand Square Miles under the Radar of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force

One Hundred Thousand Square Miles under the Radar of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force

By Dialogo
February 07, 2013

Interview with Commodore Roderick Bowe, Commander, Royal Bahamas Defence Force

The 700 islands and 2,000 rocks and cays of the Bahamas offer a paradise for tourists and a maritime heaven for drug traffickers, human smugglers and illegal fishermen. In an interview with Diálogo, during the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, held in Miami, Florida, in December 2012, Commodore Roderick Bowe talked about his role as the Commander of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the changes the force is implementing, and the importance of regional cooperation and training for the men and women who keep a close eye on the 100,000 square miles of Bahamian waters.

Diálogo: What are the main security challenges faced by your country at this time?

Commodore Roderick Bowe: There are a number of security challenges that the Bahamas is confronting. These could best be understood in the context of the Bahamas’ geographic circumstance. First, the sea lanes and waterways in and around the Bahamas form a natural international highway for a host of maritime traffic travelling to and from the Americas and Europe due to the proximity of the Bahama Islands to the United States.

Second, our family of islands consists of some 700 islands, and 2,000 rocks and cays that are sprawled over a maritime domain stretching from Florida in the north, to the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the south. This geographic outlay presents a maritime domain that is equivalent in size to the Caribbean Lesser Antilles —the area that lies between Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago. Collectively, our islands constitute the second longest coastline in the region— a length of some 2,000 miles with some 100,000 square miles of Bahamian waters that are rich in marine resources.

Third, the Bahamas’ vast maritime expanse combined with limited resources leaves much of our national borders unguarded. In view of this geographical context, the Bahamas sea lanes and waterways have become, in many instances, a maritime transit zone for a number of illicit activities. Subsequently, many of the threats to national security confronting the Bahamas originate through or in our territorial waters.

Current threats include narcotics and arms smuggling, human smuggling, illegal migration, and poaching. The Bahamas’ geographical circumstance also raises the potential for two other security threats, which include the potential for human trafficking and maritime terrorism. Additionally, the Bahamas is faced with the threat of hurricanes, with the months of August and September being the peak months for their occurrence.

Diálogo: From your perspective, what are the benefits of working with the United States to confront these challenges?

Commodore Bowe: Today’s challenges and the limited national resources to confront them are common among most nations and overseas territories within the Caribbean region. It is therefore vital that cooperative security measures between regional and international partners be undertaken if countries in the region are to adequately address them.

With the high demand for illicit goods and services in North America combined with the convenience of the Bahamas’ porous borders and neighboring sea lanes, it is incumbent upon relevant national security agencies of both countries to collaborate and network their resources for maximum results.

Over the years, the Bahamas and the United States have forged an excellent relationship in countering illicit activities transiting or occurring in Bahamian waters. This relationship has traditionally hinged on bilateral and trilateral agreements primarily designed to prevent or minimize the narcotics, illegal migrant and arms trades through legal assistance, training and patrol assets.

The Comprehensive Maritime Agreement, for example, permits U.S. Military air and surface assets to patrol Bahamian waters with Bahamian law enforcement agents and Military personnel on aboard. This ship-rider program acts as a force multiplier thereby extending the collective reach of Bahamian-U.S. national security agencies into the world of illicit trade.

Also riding on the Comprehensive Maritime Agreement is the U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Friendship program*. This counter-narcotics trafficking program utilizes a network of U.S.-supplied interceptors (or fast patrol craft) throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean. These patrol craft are operated by respective national agencies, which coordinate patrols for the purpose of intercepting traffickers and smugglers within their respective territories. Another example of cooperative security with the United States is the Operations Bahamas, Turks and Caicos agreement. This agreement allows law enforcement and military personnel of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands (a British overseas territory) to work alongside U.S. counterparts aboard U.S. military helicopters that conduct patrols over territorial waters of respective countries.

Additionally, the collaborative efforts between our nations (through these agreements) have directly or indirectly resulted in the apprehension of thousands of migrants being smuggled through Bahamian waters —in recent times, these apprehensions have occasionally included the confiscation of drugs. Furthermore, the U.S. has provided invaluable help with assisting the Bahamas with the apprehension of foreign poachers through the ship rider program. We are also most appreciative of the extensive training the U.S. has made available to our Defence Force and law enforcement personnel.

Overall, I can say that the security collaboration between the Bahamas and the United States is one that is built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust and transparency. Together, our efforts have not only netted tons of narcotics, but have also successfully stemmed the tide of narcotics trafficking through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos region.

Diálogo: What would you say are the most important achievements of the Bahamas Defence Force in the past year?

Commodore Bowe: Quite a number of achievements were made in 2012! The most important of these, I would say, were directly related to the continued unfolding of our five-year plan. More specifically, I was able to facilitate a participatory approach to the overall leadership and development of the Defence Force through the participation of all officers and senior enlisted personnel in the development and unfolding of the Defence Force’s five-year plan. I believe it is important to obtain and maintain support by the Defence Force’s leadership, management and supervisory teams, if we are to confront and overcome the challenges that are ahead of us.

Another major accomplishment was the inauguration of the Defence Force Reserve, which took place some 32 years after the establishment of the Regular Defence Force, in 1980. This inauguration was also preceded by the largest intake of recruits in the history of the Defence Force during the same year. The Regular Force has a complement of 1,100 people and was in need of a support element that can provide skills and expertise in a number of areas. The inauguration of the Defence Force Reserve was followed by the recruit, training and graduation of 21 reservists, who have been divided into permanent and temporary staff reservists that are now called upon to provide the much needed support that the regular Force needs.

The establishment of a technical team to provide guidance and oversee the proposed acquisition of 11 patrol craft was another significant achievement. The Bahamas government has agreed in principle for the Defence Force to acquire 11 patrol craft ranging in sizes from 30 meters to 56 meters. These patrol craft are a part of the Defence Force’s plan to decentralize its operations through the establishment of bases near strategic choke points throughout the Bahamas. The technical team was able to meet with potential ship builders in Europe to discuss details of the acquisition process, which has since culminated in the Bahamas government preparing a letter of intent for the ship builder. The proposed acquisition also entails the expansion of bases, dredging of harbors, installation of seawalls and construction of warehouses and workshops. To date, some 30 young men and women were trained and qualified as officers in preparation for the acquisition.

Operationally, the Defence Force was able to significantly disrupt a major migrant smuggling route thereby apprehending over 1,300 migrants with the use of limited surface assets. Defence Force personnel were also able to work alongside local law enforcement personnel (that is, the police, customs, immigration and prison) to assist in maintaining law and order within the purview of those agencies.

Diálogo: What are your main goals for the Bahamas Defence Force in 2013?

Commodore Bowe: There are several goals that I believe are essential for the Defence Force to achieve in keeping with its five-year plan. These goals include the establishment of a patrol craft acquisition committee to ensure that adequate preparations are made for the proposed patrol craft acquisitions. Additionally, I envision the initial plans for dredging the harbor at the main Defence Force base in New Providence (Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship Coral Harbour) unfolding.

As most of the illicit activities originate in the southern Bahamas, I would like to establish a new base in that area, as well as further develop existing bases in the northern, central and southern Bahamas to better facilitate air and surface assets deployed at these bases. A desired outcome is to maintain a constant presence on the Great Bahama Bank, where most of the illegal fishing by foreign poachers occurs.

By virtue of its environment and existing threats, the Defence Force is a maritime-oriented armed service that requires its personnel to engage in military and non-military operations on both land and sea. I would therefore like for the Defence Force to further develop its recently established naval-infantry school to provide amphibious training for officers and marines. It is also intended for the Naval Infantry School to become a regional center of excellence for amphibious training for local law enforcement agencies and regional security forces.

Overall, I see 2013 being a very productive and meaningful year for the Defence Force, and I am honored to be a part of a competent team that possesses the knowledge, skills and expertise to make the Defence Force a success.

*Note: The Enduring Friendship Program was a multi-year maritime security assistance initiative, spearheaded by the United States Southern Command, aimed at bolstering U.S. partner nation capabilities in maritime domain awareness, assisting in the interception of illicit traffickers, and increasing interoperability among participating countries in the Caribbean and Central American waters.