“Why [the] ANR Robinson [International Airport]? Why not Piarco as usual? Well, we are trying to go away from ‘business as usual.’
“We also spoke about Tobago being a location for an alternate governance if things in Trinidad go down. So we are going to test that as well and make sure what we say we can do, we can do it and, if not, why and how can we fix it.”
What would happen if disaster—man-made or otherwise—struck Trinidad and Tobago?
The United States Army is on local soil for a crisis response exercise, dubbed the Fused Response, which is designed to help the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force and Police Service figure out just that. The exercise aims to test response capabilities and ensure they are able and equipped to protect citizens and residents of and visitors to the two-island republic.
Colonel Kester Weekes, the Military Liaison Officer at the Ministry of National Security, and Michael Barrera, Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the United States Embassy, sat down with Wired868 to discuss the initiative, which runs from 16 to 27 April 2018:
Wired868: So tell us about the Fused Response and what will be happening in here [between 16 and 27 April]?
Colonel Kester Weekes: It is a collaboration between the Trinidad and Tobago Government and the Government of the United States in identifying some of our gaps when it comes to crisis response. So the main focus of the exercise over the next couple days is how we treat with crises.
What are our decision making processes? What are the standard operating procedures we have in place? Are they adequate? Do we need to change? Do we need to improve? Do we need to legislate? All of these types of questions we are hoping to have answered over the next few days in looking at a whole-of-government approach in terms of treating with crises.
Of course, a lot of our exercises are military to military—old stuff that we have done over the years. But this time we look to have a unique type of niche in that we are going into all the tenets of government power to come up with a whole-of-government solution to treating with crisis response.
Wired868: Crises like the firing of Darryl Smith as well?
Weekes: What? (Laughs nervously). That has nothing to do with our crisis response.
Wired868: Sorry, a weak joke. You said we are going to identify the gaps. What procedure is in place in terms of feedback on how the exercise went?
Michael Barrera: There is going to be constant communication and analysis at a government-to-government level. As far as the feedback that will trickle down to the common citizen, I will leave that up to Colonel Weekes and the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to decide how best to disseminate that. As the exercise goes on, there will be constant discussion taking place and lessons learned during and after each exercise.
Wired868: Will there be a formal report at the end of it?
Weekes: Yes, there will be. As a matter of fact, on the 27th [of April], immediately after completion, we have what we call in the military a “hot wash,” where we have a look back at what happened while it is still fresh in everybody’s minds.[…] And within seven to eight working days thereafter, we will have a report prepared for the National Security Council on the exercise in total, giving them of course some options that we will collaborate on—that is when we go back to military-to-military collaboration—in terms of training, development, etc, etc, along the continuum towards improving the society.
Wired868: Have there been any gaps identified even beforehand or gaps that you know about?
Weekes: There would have been a few gaps but I don’t want to prejudice anybody yet. (Smiles)
Wired868: Fair enough. The areas of interest were given as the Piarco International Airport, Couva, Cumuto, Macqueripe and the ANR Robinson Airport. Why were those spots chosen?
Weekes: One of the main points of guidance we were given in planning the exercise is to ensure that as best as possible we don’t disrupt normal operations of the country. [Most of the areas selected are] military land and the Couva/Point Lisas area is part of our scenario planning. I did not forget the Arthur NR Robinson Airport, which is our hub of activity at this point in time.
Why ANR Robinson? Why not Piarco as usual? Well, we are trying to go away from ‘business as usual’. We also spoke about Tobago being a location for an alternate governance if things in Trinidad go down. So we are going to test that as well and make sure what we say we can do, we can do it and, if not, why and how can we fix it.
Wired868: Can you give us any idea of what the simulations will entail? Or is this all confidential?
Weekes: For now, it is. It involves exercise play of senior leadership in the country and the various arms that actually do things physically. So I can’t share as yet until it unfolds.
Wired868: Why not our sea ports like Scarborough?
Weekes: Because we did not pull the ports part of it on this particular series of exercises. This one was specific to the crisis management in particular sectors.
Wired868: So that may follow?
Weekes: In future, yes. These are things we have to think about. One of the main planning groups in this is the Energy Sector Security Initiative and, of course, ports are always a major concern. We have already done collaborations with our US counterparts on those kinds of initiatives.
Wired868: So was it that we were limited in terms of resources or was there some other reason why we couldn’t do it this time?
Weekes: Ahh… In every thing when you exercise, it must be reality-based, it must be credible [and] it must present a challenge without overwhelming people. To try and add on other parts that include ports may have overwhelmed a lot of people and we would not have gotten the quality training out of what we are trying to do.
Wired868: Is that why there are no exercises in Cedros and Icacos, where I understand there is ongoing black market trafficking between Venezuela and Trinidad?
Weekes: Again, returning to the main aim—crisis management. That particular issue is a law enforcement issue that we are not treating with in this particular scheme of exercises.
Wired868: If I can touch on that—outside of the Fused discussion—because, of course, it is a Coast Guard issue. Could you tell me anything in terms of how the Coast Guard is treating with that?
Weekes: I thought we were discussing the Fused Response? (Smiles) Remember I am not a sailor so I would be misquoting if I tried to…
Wired868: But the Coast Guard does fall under Defence Force. Is there something you can say for people who are concerned?
Weekes: Well, needless to say, it has grabbed the attention of not only the Honourable Minister [Edmund Dillon] but the Defence Force. We are currently in negotiations with a few of the main players in the area—players with assets. And again, I kind of mentioned the Energy Sector Security Initiative before; that is kind of also part of the mandate for that grouping—to deal with those kinds of things, separate to the Fused Response. But I want to make sure [what we are doing on the] Fused Response gets out there.
Wired868: What you said didn’t give me much at all. You all are following the issue… That’s nice but isn’t there any real statement you can make at all?
Weekes: No, I am not authorised to make any such statement at this point in time. But I can tell you, there are initiatives going on to treat with the issue. Once those come to fruition, they will be made public because it has to be made public.
Wired868: So is it that it is in the theory phase right now?
Weekes: Not really. It is at negotiation; it has gone past theory.
Wired868: You said you didn’t want the public to be alarmed at some of the things going on with the Fused Response exercise. What should they be looking out for or what may they come across that might alarm them?
Weekes: (Pauses) There will be boots on the ground, there will be helicopters, there will be larger cargo planes coming in and out. But again that will be more on the Tobago leg of it because, as I said, that is our operational hub. In the areas we spoke about earlier—the particular areas—there will be some action on the ground, joint operations between the Defence Force and the Police Service and our American counterparts as we go through some of the drills and so on in treating with our crisis management template.
Wired868: The Fused Response exercises in the Caribbean started back in 2012. Was it offered to Trinidad before? Was there any reason we didn’t take it up earlier?
Barrera: This was the first time it was offered to Trinidad and Tobago. It was at the invitation of the host government. There are always natural and man-made threats so it is important that we go through this together and take advantage of this opportunity and also solidify our relationship with Trinidad and Tobago.
Wired868: Any particular reason you chose Trinidad and Tobago now?
Barrera: Well, [Trinidad and Tobago is] a strong regional partner but, as far as any specific reason, I don’t have those at this point.
Wired868: Can you give me any idea of the cost of the exercise and whether it comes out of whatever budget the US already has for Trinidad? Or is it something separate and additional?
Barrera: I can’t say the total cost but I can tell you that we are footing the bill. We are paying for their stay and food and the majority of it so it won’t be detrimental to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.
Weekes: Minimal cost to Trinidad.
Wired868: And this is a separate budget and not taken from aid already assigned to Trinidad?
Barrera: Absolutely correct.
Weekes: This is part of the training budget.
Wired868: I noticed that we intend to share what we have learnt with the rest of the region. How will that work?
Weekes: Our energy sector is the most advanced in the region, […] We will be able to share information in terms of some of the issues that would have come up [during the exercise]. That would make their [progress] a little easier. Military share information all the time; that is common. We are hoping that as we go through the Fused Response, we will be able to share the poignant lessons learned with our neighbouring islands.
Wired868: And speaking of rumours—in light of the incident during our Carnival season—can you say whether there are more US intelligence officers operating in Trinidad at present? Has there been a spike? And was the US involved at all in those [“terrorism”] arrests for Carnival?
Barrera: So, as the Colonel pointed out, we are going to talk about the Fused Response. (Pauses) One thing you hear the Chargé [Jim McIntyre] say that is absolutely true: in mature democracies, intelligence is shared all the time and that is just what happens. And we work closely with Trinidad and Tobago on all kinds of safety and security issues. That is all I can say.
Weekes: (Chuckles) In addition to the exercise, we have a community health caravan which is something fairly common for the Defence Force. We have now targeted the population centres closest to the areas where we will be operating to have the blood sugar and blood pressure testing and those kinds of community things that we normally do as a matter of course.
(The Defence Force Community Health Caravan offered free blood pressure testing, massages, blood glucose and cholesterol testing, rapid HIV testing and general practitioner (doctor) services in Couva, Sangre Grande and Princes Town during the past week).
Wired868: Can you explain why this is part of the Defence Force’s mandate and what role it plays in your interaction with the public?
Weekes: Community outreach is part of what we do. At the end of the day, your Defence Force is here to serve you. We have medical professionals here in the Defence Force and […] these people are trained to serve Trinidad and Tobago. This is just another way for us to provide a service that we have developed within our rank and file with our public of Trinidad and Tobago.
We normally have one major health caravan during the year at our headquarters and two other iterations of our roving caravan during the year.
Wired868: And will the US troops leave with Jack Warner?
Weekes and Barrera: Hahahahaha!
Public Administration Communications Manager Charlene Stuart: Lasana, you are not going to get an answer to that one!
Weekes, Barrera and Wired868: Hahahaha!
Weekes: Fused Response is all about the crisis response [and] the planning cycle. It is not related to anything that we may want it to be related to. […] It is not just a military exercise; we are exercising our Police Service too and we are exercising our intelligence too and those types of things so nothing to be alarmed about. It is just us trying to better ourselves for the public of Trinidad and Tobago.