Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

The Bahamas, a Regional Partner to Counter Illicit Networks

The Royal Bahamas Defence Force works with local and regional agencies to achieve regional stability.
Geraldine Cook/ Diálogo | 19 February 2019

Commodore Tellis Bethel, chief of Defence Staff of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, highlighted the importance of regional partners to solve shared security threats. (Photo: Geraldine Cook, Diálogo)

Commodore Tellis Bethel, chief of Defence Staff of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF), recognizes the importance of providing security and stability in his country. Thousands of tourists flock yearly to the crystal, white sand and blue waters of the country’s tropical beaches, but the country also serves as a transshipment point for international criminal networks’ illicit activities.

Cdre. Bethel participated at the 16th Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, December 4-6, 2018, to share his perspective on regional integration to defeat common security threats. The officer spoke with Diálogo about the security concerns his country faces and the importance of working together to counter the effect of illegal networks in the Caribbean region.

Diálogo: What is the significance of Bahamas’s participation at CANSEC 2018?

Commodore Tellis Bethel, chief of Defence Staff, Royal Bahamas Defence Force: Although The Bahamas is geographically located at the northwestern end of the Caribbean region, its threats and challenges are very much the same as its counterparts. CANSEC 2018 was most relevant to the region and The Bahamas, in particular. The outcomes of multilateral dialogue among a highly experienced and diverse group of security experts, provide a much-needed opportunity for The Bahamas to glean from the past experiences and the solutions proposed by other partners, as well as to share its own experiences and lessons learned for the overall enhancement of regional security. 

Diálogo: One of CANSEC’s main topics was to enhance the framework to counter regional threats. What does The Bahamas bring to the regional effort to counter security threats?

Cdre. Bethel: The Bahamas had deployed troops to Haiti, as part of the CARICOM Battalion during the United Nation’s Peacekeeping Mission to Haiti from 1994-1996. In 2009, The Bahamas contributed to the security efforts of both the Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting providing both events with troops and planning staff. Furthermore, The Bahamas plays a vital role through information sharing with regional intelligence agencies for a safer and more secured region. Today, the Defence Force stands ready as a predominantly small-island naval force to assist with peacekeeping, disaster relief, security operations for major regional events, maritime security and training.

Diálogo: The regional crisis-response mechanism was part of CANSEC’s agenda. How does The Bahamas contribute to the regional crisis-response effort?

Cdre. Bethel: The Bahamas’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is an active partner within the regional crisis response framework under the umbrella of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. NEMA is also the lead agency for local crisis response and therefore coordinates or participates in regular regional training, planning, and strategizing for regional crisis response. In addition to providing primary support for NEMA, the RBDF provides assistance to the Caribbean Disaster Relief Unit at both the managerial and tactical levels.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria (October 2017), The Bahamas assisted Dominica with the deployment of an RBDF auxiliary vessel, HMBS Lawrence Major, with hurricane relief supplies. In route, the 187-foot landing craft also collected and transported supplies from Jamaica to Dominica on behalf of Jamaica’s government. In Dominica, the ship’s company prepared hundreds of meals daily, assisted with basic repairs to public facilities, and provided much needed water. The Bahamian government deployed a small medical corps to assist with medical care.

Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts as chief of Defence Staff?

Cdre. Bethel: The Bahamas’s maritime domain is challenged by a host of illicit activities including the potential for terrorism. If left unchecked, these activities could threaten the stability of the region. RBDF primarily operates from its main base at Coral Harbour on the island of New Providence, in central Bahamas. This makes it very difficult for timely response to threats or to provide humanitarian assistance throughout our chain of islands. A major objective of mine over the next five years is to unfold RBDF’s decentralization program. It’s a three-part program consisting of the acquisition of patrol craft and the dredging of harbors, the expansion and development of bases, and the acquisition and installation of detection and tracking technologies within the northern, central, and southern Bahamas.

Already, The Bahamian government has invested USD $232 million for the acquisition of nine patrol craft ranging in lengths from 100 feet to 187 feet, as well as the dredging of three harbors in central and southern Bahamas. As part of the second phase, plans are already unfolding for the expansion and development of bases on islands in central and southern Bahamas, near strategic choke points where much of the illicit activities originate. The third phase is also simultaneously underway with the acquisition and installation of communications systems, and detection, and tracking technologies with the assistance of the U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. Detection and tracking systems will include a network of coastal radars along our chain of islands. The first in a series of coastal radars was recently installed on our southernmost island with the assistance of FMF. The Bahamas has recently approved plans for the development and implementation of a multi-agency drone program to be coordinated by RBDF. The ultimate aim is to develop a multi-layered maritime security framework that would significantly improve RBDF’s C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities within The Bahamas’s maritime domain.

Diálogo: The Commonwealth of The Bahamas comprises 700 islands and 2,000 rocks and cays, which offer a paradise for tourists and a maritime haven for international criminal networks. What interagency initiatives has RBDF adopted to counter transnational criminal organizations?

Cdre. Bethel: With over 700 islands to patrol and a myriad challenges, it is incumbent upon RBDF to network with its local and regional law enforcement and military partner agencies as force multipliers. The Defence Act, which also governs RBDF, makes provisions for RBDF to assist with law enforcement for the maintenance of law and order, or to be employed as directed by the National Security Council. In addition to assigning RBDF personnel to law enforcement agencies, RBDF has engaged in multiple, joint law enforcement operations with the Police Force, Customs, Immigration and the Marine Resources Unit, resulting in numerous arrests and, most recently, a significant reduction in serious crime on the streets of our capital city.

Regionally, RBDF conducts joint operations with local police, the Turks and Caicos Police and U.S. law enforcement partners under Operations Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT). Additionally, The Bahamas and the U.S. have entered into a bilateral comprehensive maritime agreement that allows RBDF to engage in a ship-rider program where RBDF personnel are stationed as law-enforcement personnel aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels. RBDF has also provided logistical and tactical support for several major joint combined operations with the police and U.S. partners.

Diálogo: RBDF and the United States partnered on Operation Marlin Spike in January 2017. What was the objective and what successes did the operation report? Why was it important for The Bahamas and the U.S. to conduct it jointly?

Cdre. Bethel: Operation Marlin Spike is a Joint Military Information Operations initiative between U.S. Northern Command and RBDF, to assist with the deterrence, prevention, or interdiction of drug, weapons, and human smuggling as well as poaching and potential terrorist activities within The Bahamas’s maritime domain through Information Operations (IO). We use IO as a mechanism to build support for our efforts among key sectors of the general public, in addition to disrupting or discouraging those who seek to violate The Bahamas’s maritime laws. A significant area of success, thus far, has been the constructive feedback from the community on how RBDF may better serve it. Although a Tips Telephone Line and Facebook page have been established as a part of this program, there has been a greater degree of success in receiving information concerning illicit activities born out of personal contacts made with the general public. Consequently, there is a gradual building of trust within the various communities.

Our partnerships with the U.S., as neighbors with shared borders that are challenged with common threats, are important because they act as a force multiplier that enables The Bahamas and the U.S. to share vital expertise, resources, and information, as well as engage in joint operations with regional partners in combating common threats to regional safety and security, especially in the northern sector of the Caribbean region.

Diálogo: What combined efforts does RBDF conduct with the United States?

Cdre. Bethel: RBDF is a member of the Caribbean Region Information Operations Council, which fosters regional partnerships, networking, collaboration, and sharing of information for the promotion of regional stability and security through various IO programs in the region. We also have OPBAT, which consists primarily of U.S. Coast Guard rotor-wing assets that coordinate joint operations with the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF), Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force, RBDF, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other U.S. law-enforcement agencies. RBDF also participates in three training exercises involving its Northern Command and/or Southern Command partners: Coral Cays, the Marlin Shield, and Tradewinds. RBPF and other local Bahamian law-enforcement partners, such as Immigration and Customs, are invited to participate when relevant.

Coral Cays is a table-top planning and preparedness exercise that examines possible threat scenarios and the roles and responsibilities of those assigned to prevent, deter, detect, disrupt, eliminate or mitigate them. Marlin Shield is a joint combined counter-terrorism training exercise conducted every two years in The Bahamas. Principal agencies are Marine Forces North, Special Operations Command North, and RBDF. The exercise involves surface, air, and ground assets. The last exercise was held in 2017 and involved the tracking and apprehension of terrorists transiting The Bahamas in route to the U.S. southern border.

Diálogo: Why is it important for RBDF to participate in multinational interagency exercises such as Tradewinds?

Cdre. Bethel: All regional forces have their limitations in capacity and capabilities and therefore need to share their knowledge and expertise. This shared experience also helps to establish common procedures and protocols for interoperability, especially in the event regional partners are called upon to assist each other. Tradewinds provides tactical and operational training in areas of interoperability, collaboration, information sharing, and partnership building for the purpose of countering illicit smuggling activities like narcotics and weapons, terrorism, as well as mitigating natural disasters and providing humanitarian assistance at the regional level.

Diálogo: RBDF has a strong partnership with the Rhode Island Army National Guard through the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program. What kind of exchanges do you conduct together?

Cdre. Bethel: The Rhode Island Army National Guard has provided extensive specialized training for RBDF, both in The Bahamas and in the United States since 2005. The training programs provided to RBDF over the years have included military policing, cyber and communications, logistics, force protection, detention center operations, non-lethal weapons training and weapons training, and K-9 training. These programs are typically one to three weeks in length. They are also complementary to other law-enforcement training programs conducted by RBDF, which will continue during 2019.

Diálogo: What would you say were the most important achievements of RBDF in 2018?

Cdre. Bethel: The RBDF has made a number of significant accomplishments during 2018. Among them were the apprehension of almost 200 poachers from the Dominican Republic, along with the confiscation of five steel-hulled fishing vessels with over 160,000 pounds of fisheries products on board, resulting in fines by the courts of over USD $8 million.

RBDF also contributed to the reduction of serious crime on the streets of New Providence, where over 75 percent of Bahamians live, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in murders, the lowest in a decade. RBDF has apprehended or assisted in apprehending approximately 1,600 undocumented migrants being smuggled into The Bahamas. Additionally, RBDF provided logistical and tactical support for two major combined anti-drug operations with Bahamian police and U.S. law-enforcement agencies.

With regard to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, RBDF continues to provide security for local residents on one of The Bahamas’s remote islands, which is still recovering from the devastation from Hurricane Matthew, in 2017. During 2018, more than 80 lives were rescued or assisted at sea.

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