Timor Leste Defence Force

Timor Leste Defence Force
Timor-Leste Defence Force
Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste
F-FDTL coat of arms
F-FDTL coat of arms
Founded 2001
Service branches Army, Naval Component
Headquarters Dili
President José Ramos-Horta
Minister for Defence and Security Xanana Gusmão
Commander, Timor-Leste Defence Force Major General Lere Anan Timor (from late 2011)
Available for
military service
299,008 males, age 16–49 (2010 est),
286,465 females, age 16–49 (2010 est)
Fit for
military service
236,996 males, age 16–49 (2010 est),
245,033 females, age 16–49 (2010 est)
Reaching military
age annually
12,795 males (2010 est),
12,443 females (2010 est)
Active personnel 1,332 (IISS, 2010) (ranked 156)
Reserve personnel None
Budget $US21.5 million (2011)[1]
Domestic suppliers None
Foreign suppliers Donations from foreign governments
Related articles
Ranks Military ranks of East Timor

The Timor Leste Defence Force (Tetum: Forcas Defesa Timor Lorosae, Portuguese: Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste or Falintil-FDTL, often F-FDTL) is the military organisation responsible for the defence of East Timor. The F-FDTL was established in February 2001 and currently comprises two small infantry battalions, a small Naval Component and several supporting units.

The F-FDTL's primary role is to protect East Timor from external threats. It also has an internal security role, which overlaps with the role assigned to the Policia Nacional de Timor Leste (PNTL). This overlap has led to tensions between the services, which have been exacerbated by poor morale and discipline within the F-FDTL.

The F-FDTL's problems came to a head in 2006 when almost half the force was dismissed following protests over discrimination and poor conditions. The dismissal contributed to a general collapse of both the F-FDTL and PNTL in May and forced the government to request foreign peacekeepers to restore security. The F-FDTL is currently being rebuilt with foreign assistance and has drawn up a long-term force development plan.



The Constitution of East Timor assigns the F-FDTL responsibility for protecting East Timor against external attack. The Constitution states that the F-FDTL "shall guarantee national independence, territorial integrity and the freedom and security of the populations against any aggression or external threat, in respect for the constitutional order". The Constitution also states that the F-FDTL "shall be non-partisan and shall owe obedience to the competent organs of sovereignty in accordance with the Constitution and the laws, and shall not intervene in political matters". The East Timorese police and civilian security forces are assigned responsibility for internal security.[2]

In practice the responsibilities of the F-FDTL and the National Police of East Timor (or PNTL) are not clearly delineated, and this has led to conflict between the two organisations.[3] While the F-FDTL has no formal police functions, it has taken on a policing role on several occasions.[4] Conversely, the PNTL have been involved in border defence operations near the western border. The conflicting roles of the police and military between were aggravated by the East Timorese Government's failure to establish a national security policy.[3] As of February 2010 the Government was developing legislation to more clearly define the roles of the two services.[5]



The F-FDTL was formed from the national liberation movement guerrilla army known as FALINTIL (Portuguese acronym for Forças Armadas de Libertação de Timor-Leste or Armed Forces for the Liberation of East Timor). During the period before 1999 some East Timorese leaders, including the current President José Ramos-Horta, proposed that a future East Timorese state would not have a military. The widespread violence and destruction that followed the independence referendum in 1999 and the need to provide employment to FALINTIL veterans led to a change in policy, however.[6] Following the end of Indonesian rule, FALINTIL proposed the establishment of a large military of about 5,000 personnel.[7]

In mid-2000 the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) invited a team from King's College London to conduct a study of East Timor's security force options. The team's report identified three options for an East Timorese military. Option 1 was based on FALINTIL's preference for a relatively large and heavily armed military of 3,000–5,000 personnel, Option 2 was a force of 1,500 regulars and 1,500 conscripts and Option 3 was for a force of 1,500 regulars and 1,500 volunteer reservists.[8] The study team recommended Option 3 as being best suited to East Timor's security needs and economic situation. This recommendation was accepted by UNTAET in September 2000 and formed the basis of East Timor's defence planning.[6] The plan was also accepted by all the countries that had contributed peacekeeping forces to East Timor.[9] The King's College report has been criticised on the grounds that it led East Timor to establish a large police force and a large Army when its security needs may have been better met by a single smaller paramilitary force.[10]

While East Timor's decision to form a military has been criticised by some commentators, the East Timorese government has consistently believed that the force is necessary for political and security reasons. These commentators argue that as East Timor does not face any external threats the government's limited resources would be better spent on strengthening the PNTL. While East Timor's political leadership recognise that the country does not currently face an external threat, they believe that it is necessary to maintain a military capacity to deter future aggression. The establishment of the F-FDTL was also seen as an effective means of integrating FALINTIL into an independent East Timor.[11]

Formation of the F-FDTL

FALINTIL veterans

FALINTIL officially became F-FDTL on 1 February 2001. The first 650 members of the F-FDTL were selected from 1,736 former FALINTIL applicants and began training on 29 March. The FDTL's 1st Battalion was established on 29 June 2001 and reached full strength on 1 December. Most members of the battalion were from East Timor's eastern provinces.[12] The 2nd Battalion was established in 2002 from a cadre of the 1st Battalion and was manned mainly by new personnel under the age of 21 who had not participated in the independence struggle.[13] Due to the force's prestige and relatively high pay, 7,000 applicants applied for the first 267 positions in the battalion.[14] The F-FDTL's small Naval Component was established in December 2001.[15]

Some of the problems that have affected the F-FDTL throughout its existence were caused by the process used to establish the force. A key flaw in this process was that FALINTIL's high command was allowed to select candidates for the military from members of FALINTIL without external oversight. As a result, the selection was conducted, to a large degree, on the basis of applicants' political allegiance. This led to many FALINTIL veterans feeling that they had been unfairly excluded from the military and reduced the force's public standing.[16] Furthermore, UNTAET failed to establish adequate foundations for the East Timorese security sector by developing legislative and planning documents, administrative support arrangements and mechanisms for the democratic control of the military. These omissions remained uncorrected after East Timor achieved independence on 20 May 2002.[17]

The F-FDTL gradually assumed responsibility for East Timor's security from the UN peacekeeping force. The Lautém District was the first area to pass to the F-FDTL in July 2002. After further training the F-FDTL took over responsibility for the entire country's external security on 20 May 2004, although some foreign peacekeepers remained in East Timor until mid-2005.[18] The F-FDTL conducted its first operation in January 2003 when an army unit was called in to quell criminal activity caused by west Timorese militia gangs in the Ermera district. While the F-FDTL operated in a "relatively disciplined and orderly fashion" during this operation, it illegally arrested nearly 100 people who were released 10 days later without being charged.[19]

The F-FDTL has suffered from serious morale and disciplinary problems since its establishment.[20] These problems have been driven by uncertainty over the F-FDTL's role, poor conditions of service due to limited resources, tensions arising from FALINTIL's transition from a guerrilla organisation to a regular military and political and regional rivalries. The F-FDTL's morale and disciplinary problems have resulted in large numbers of soldiers being disciplined or dismissed.[21] The East Timorese Government was aware of these problems before the 2006 crisis but did not rectify the factors that were contributing to low morale.[22]

Tensions between the F-FDTL and PNTL have also reduced the effectiveness of East Timor's security services. During 2003 and 2004, members of the police and F-FDTL clashed on a number of occasions, and groups of soldiers attacked police stations in September 2003 and December 2004.[22] These tensions were caused by the overlapping roles of the two security services and differences of opinion between members of East Timor's leadership.[23]

2006 crisis

External images
An East Timorese soldier during fighting in May 2006[24]

The tensions within the F-FDTL came to a head in 2006. In January, 159 soldiers from most units in the F-FDTL complained in a petition to then President Xanana Gusmão that soldiers from the east of the country received better treatment than westerners. The 'petitioners' received only a minimal response and left their barracks three weeks later, leaving their weapons behind.[25] They were joined by hundreds of other soldiers and on 16 March the F-FDTL's commander, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak, dismissed 594 soldiers, which was nearly half of the force.[22] The soldiers dismissed were not limited to the petitioners, and included about 200 officers and other ranks who had been chronically absent without leave in the months and years before March 2006.[25]

The crisis escalated into violence in late April. On 24 April, the petitioners and some of their supporters held a four-day demonstration outside the Government Palace in Dili calling for the establishment of an independent commission to address their grievances. Violence broke out on 28 April when some of the petitioners and gangs of youths who had joined the protest attacked the Government Palace. The PNTL failed to contain the protest and the Palace was badly damaged. After violence spread to other areas of Dili, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri requested that the F-FDTL help restore order. Troops with no experience in crowd control were deployed to Dili on 29 April and three deaths resulted. On 3 May Major Alfredo Reinado, the commander of the F-FDTL's military police unit, and most of his soldiers including Lt Gastão Salsinha abandoned their posts in protest at what they saw as the army's deliberate shooting of civilians.[26]

Fighting broke out between the remnants of the East Timorese security forces and the rebels and gangs in late May. On 23 May Reinado's rebel group opened fire on F-FDTL and PNTL personnel in the Fatu Ahi area. On 24 May F-FDTL personnel near the Force's headquarters were attacked by a group of rebel police officers, petitioners and armed civilians. The attack was defeated when one of the F-FDTL Naval Component's patrol boats fired on the attackers.[27] During the crisis the relationship between the F-FDTL and PNTL had deteriorated further, and on 25 May members of the F-FDTL attacked the PNTL's headquarters, killing nine unarmed police officers.[22]

As a result of the escalating violence the government was forced to appeal for international peacekeepers on 25 May. Peacekeepers began to arrive in Dili the next day and eventually restored order. A total of 37 people were killed in the fighting in April and May and 155,000 fled their homes. A United Nations inquiry found that the interior and defence ministers and the commander of the F-FDTL had illegally transferred weapons to civilians during the crisis and recommended that they be prosecuted.[28]

Force development plans

The 2006 crisis left the F-FDTL "in ruins".[29] The F-FDTL's strength fell from 1,435 in January 2006 to 715 in September and the proportion of westerners in the military fell from 65 percent to 28 percent.[17] The F-FDTL has started a rebuilding process with support from several nations and the United Nations but is not ready to resume responsibility for East Timor's external security.[29]

White gates with buildings behind them
The gate to the F-FDTL Nicolau Lobato Training Centre near Metinaro

In 2004 the commander of the F-FDTL formed a team, which included international contractors, to develop a long-term strategic vision document for the military. This study was supported by the Australian Government.[30] The resulting Force 2020 document was completed in 2006 and made public in 2007.[31] The document sets out an 'aspirational' vision for the development of the F-FDTL to 2020 and beyond and is of equivalent status to a defence white paper. It proposes expanding the military to a strength of 3,000 regular personnel in the medium term through the introduction of conscription. It also sets longer-term goals such as establishing an air component and purchasing modern weapons, such as anti-armour weapons, armoured personnel carriers and missile boats, by 2020.[32]

The Force 2020 plan is similar to Option 1 in the King's College report. The King's College study team strongly recommended against such a force structure, labelling it "unaffordable" and raising concerns over the impact of conscription upon East Timorese society and military readiness. The team estimated that sustaining such a force structure would cost 2.6 to 3.3 percent of East Timor's annual Gross Domestic Product and would "represent a heavy burden on the East Timor economy".[33] Moreover, the Force 2020 plan may not be realistic or suitable as it appears to emphasise military expansion to counter external threats over spending on other government services and internal security and outlines ideas such as the long-term (~2075) development of space forces.[34]

While the Force 2020 plan has proven controversial, it appears to have been adopted by the East Timorese government. The plan was criticised by the United Nations and the governments of Australia and the United States as unaffordable and in excess of East Timor's needs.[35] East Timorese President José Ramos-Horta defended the plan, however, arguing that its adoption will transform the F-FDTL into a professional force capable of defending East Timor's sovereignty and contributing to the nation's stability.[36] East Timorese defence officials have also stressed that Force 2020 is a long-term plan and does not propose acquiring advanced weapons for some years. As of early 2008 the plan had not been approved by parliament but plans were being made for its implementation.[31]

The repercussions of the 2006 crisis continue to be felt. On 11 February 2008, a group of rebels led by Alfredo Reinado attempted to kill or kidnap President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Gusmão. Although Ramos-Horta and one of his guards were badly wounded, these attacks were not successful and Reinado and another rebel were killed. A joint F-FDTL and PNTL command was established to pursue the surviving rebels and the military and police have demonstrated a high degree of cooperation during this operation.[37] The joint command was disbanded on 19 June 2008. While the joint command contributed to the surrender of many of Reinado's associates, it has been alleged that members of the command committed human rights violations.[38] In June 2008 the Government offered to provide financial compensation to the petitioners who wished to return to civilian life. This offer was accepted, and all the petitioners returned to their homes by August that year.[39]

Command arrangements

Major General Taur Matan Ruak in December 2009. Ruak led the F-FDTL from its establishment until 2011.[40]

The Constitution of East Timor states that the President is the supreme commander of the defence force and has the power to appoint the F-FDTL's Commander and Chief of Staff. The Council of Ministers and National Parliament are responsible for funding the F-FDTL and setting policy relating to East Timor's security.[2] Prime Minister Gusmão also serves as the current Minister of Defence and Security.[41] A Superior Council for Defence and Security was also established in 2005 to advise the President on defence and security policy and legislation and the appointment and dismissal of senior military personnel. The council is chaired by the President and includes the Prime Minister, the defence, justice, interior and foreign affairs ministers, the heads of the F-FDTL and PNTL a national state security officer and three representatives from the national parliament. The council's role is not clear, however, and neither it nor the parliament served as a check against the decision to sack large numbers of F-FDTL personnel in 2006.[42] A parliamentary committee also provides oversight of East Timor's security sector.[41]

A small Ministry of Defence (which was renamed the Ministry of Defence and Security in 2007) was established in 2002 to provide civilian oversight of the F-FDTL. A lack of suitable staff for the Ministry and the close political relationship between senior F-FDTL officers and government figures rendered this oversight largely ineffectual and retarded the development of East Timor's defence policy up to at least 2004.[43] The failure to institute effective civilian oversight of the F-FDTL also limited the extent to which foreign countries are willing to provide assistance to the F-FDTL[44] and contributed to the 2006 crisis.[45] As at early 2010 the Ministry of Defence and Security was organised into elements responsible for defence (including the F-FDTL) and security (including the PNTL), each headed by their own Secretary of State. At this time the East Timorese Government was working to expand the Ministry's capacity with assistance from UNMIT, but continuing shortages of qualified staff limited the extent to which the Ministry could provide civilian oversight to the security sector.[46]


The F-FDTL's structure in 2007

The F-FDTL is organised into an army of two light infantry battalions, a naval component and supporting units. These support units include the force's headquarters, a logistic support unit, a communications unit and a military police company. East Timor does not have an air force and the F-FDTL does not currently operate any aircraft. The F-FDTL also operates the "largest and most sophisticated" human intelligence network in East Timor, based on the clandestine resistance reporting networks built up during the Indonesian occupation.[47] In May 2008 the national parliament passed a law which places the F-FTDL's intelligence branch under the authority of the head of the National Information Service.[48]

The F-FDTL has an authorised strength of 1,500 regular personnel and 1,500 reservists. It has never reached these totals as funding shortfalls have prevented the reserve component from being formed and the Army's two regular battalions have remained under-strength.[49] While all the F-FDTL's personnel were initially FALINTIL veterans the force's composition has changed over time and few soldiers from the insurgency remain due to the force's narrow age requirement.[50] After the F-FDTL's 1st Battalion was established in 2001 recruitment was opened to all East Timorese above the age of 18, including women.[51] Few women have joined the F-FDTL, however, and as at February 2010 only seven percent of new recruits were female.[52][53]


The land force of the F-FDTL consists of two light infantry battalions, each with an authorised strength of 600 personnel. The force was predominantly trained by the Australian and Portuguese militaries.[54] Each battalion has three rifle companies, a support company and a headquarters company.[55] Although the army is small, the guerrilla tactics employed by FALINTIL before the departure in 1999 of the Indonesian military were effective against overwhelming numbers and it has the potential to form a credible deterrent against invasion.[56]

F-FDTL soldiers raise flags during a parade marking Falantil Day

The US Embassy in Dili states that in 2009 the F-FDTL comprised 719 qualified soldiers and a further 579 in training. Of the 579 recruits under training it is planned that 150 will be allocated to the Naval Component.[57]

The army's two battalions are located in separate bases. The 1st Battalion is based at Baucau, with a contingent in the seaside coastline village of Laga.[49] The 2nd Battalion is stationed at the Nicolau Lobato Training Centre near Metinaro.[58] Almost all of the 2nd Battalion's soldiers were dismissed during the 2006 crisis.[17]

Logistics and service support is provided through Headquarters F-FDTL in Dili. There is also a military police unit that polices the F-FDTL and in addition performs traditional policing tasks, resulting in conflicting roles with the PNTL. The military police have also been responsible for presidential security since February 2007.[59] The F-FDTL is planning to raise two engineer squadrons with a total of 125 personnel during 2010.[60]

The F-FDTL is armed only with small arms and does not have any crew-served weapons. The 2007 edition of Jane's Sentinel states that the F-FDTL has the following equipment in service: 1,560 M16 rifles and 75 M203 grenade launchers, 75 FN Minimi squad automatic weapons, 8 sniper rifles and 50 .45 M1911A1 pistols. A further 75 Minimis are to be ordered. The majority of the F-FDTL's weapons were donated by other countries.[61]

Naval Component

The Naval Component of the F-FDTL was established in December 2001 when Portugal transferred two small Portuguese Navy. Its establishment was not supported by the King's College study team, the UN or East Timor's other donor countries on the grounds that East Timor could not afford to operate a naval force.[62] The role of the Naval Component is to conduct fishery and border protection patrols and ensure that the maritime line of communication to the Oecussi enclave remains open.[63] As at June 2010 the Naval Component is equipped with four patrol boats.[64] Under the Force 2020 plan the Naval Component may eventually be expanded to a light patrol force equipped with corvette-sized ships and landing craft.[65]

Members of the F-FDTL Naval Component with US Marines

The two Albatroz class patrol boats Oecussi and Atauro are each armed with a 20 mm Oerlikon cannon and two 12.7 mm machine guns and are based at Hera Harbour a few kilometres east of Dili.[63] They were built in the early 1970s and were in the process of being decommissioned from the Portuguese Navy at the time they were offered to East Timor.[66] The patrol boats' high operating costs are a significant constraint on the Naval Component.[67]

On 12 April 2008 East Timor signed a contract for two new Chinese-built 43 metre Type-62 class patrol boats. These ships will replace the Albatroz class ships and be used to protect East Timor's fisheries. The contract for the ships also involves 30 to 40 East Timorese personnel being trained in China.[68][69] It has also been reported that East Timor's shore infrastructure will also be updated as part of the acquisition of the Type-62 class ships.[63] The two new patrol boats arrived from China in June 2010 and were commissioned as the Jaco Class on the eleventh of the month.[70][71] The craft have been named Jaco and Betano.[64] In November 2010 it was reported that East Timor would order a further two naval patrol boats from South Korea.[72] In September 2011, South Korea transfered three Chamsuri class patrol boats to the Naval Component, on the basis of an agreement signed the previous month in Seoul. After the formal handover the three vessels were rechristened Kamenassa, Dili and Hera, respectively.

Reports on the Naval Component's strength are contradictory; while the 2009–2010 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships states that 150 personnel are under training,[63] the 2010 edition of the IISS Military Balance lists the Naval Component's size as 82 personnel.[73] The United States Embassy in Dili states that the Naval Component comprised 87 personnel at the end of 2009 and is to be expanded by a further 150.[57]

Defence expenditure and procurement

East Timor Government budget papers show that the F-FDTL has been allocated funding of $US21.519 million for 2011, with further funding being provided to the Ministry of Defence and Security and Secretariat of State for Defence.[1] East Timor is reliant on foreign aid to fund and equip the F-FDTL. The aid is provided in the form of military equipment, such as weapons and uniforms, and through the provision of training and assistance with logistics. No military production currently takes place in East Timor, though the country may eventually manufacture its own military uniforms.[74] The King's College report estimated that a military of 1,500 regulars and 1,500 reservists would cost approximately one percent of East Timor's GDP and that this was the highest level of military expenditure the country could sustain.[75]

Funding shortfalls have constrained the development of the F-FDTL. The government has been forced to postpone plans to form an independent company stationed in the Oecussi enclave and two reserve infantry battalions. These units formed an important part of the King's College report's Option 3 force structure and their absence may have impacted on East Timor's defence policy.[76] The signing of agreements to purchase patrol boats from China and military equipment from Malaysia in 2008 may indicate that East Timor is increasing its defence budget in order to modernise the F-FDTL.[77]

Foreign defence relations

A map of East Timor marked with the locations of Locations of UNMIT military liaison teams
Locations of UNMIT military liaison teams as at February 2011

Foreign countries play a key role in supporting the F-FDTL and are providing security in East Timor until the Timorese security forces are ready to resume this responsibility. The United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) is tasked with supporting the East Timorese government and security institutions, including the F-FDTL. UNMIT was established on 25 August 2006 and replaced the United Nations Office in Timor Leste (UNOTIL). As at 30 June 2010 UNMIT had a strength of 1,466 uniformed personnel, including 1,434 police and 32 military observers. These personnel were supported by 354 international civilians, 907 local civilian workers and 176 UN volunteers.[78] UNMIT includes a Military Liaison Group which maintains teams in Dili, Baucau, Maliana, Suai, and Oecussi. These teams collect information on security issues for UNMIT and liaise with both the East Timorese Border Police and the Indonesian military in border districts.[79]

UNMIT is supported by an Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF). The ISF was deployed to East Timor in late May 2006 and currently includes units from the Australian Defence Force and the New Zealand Defence Force. The main element of the ISF is the ANZAC Battle Group, which has a strength of about 400 Australians and 150 New Zealanders as at August 2010.[80] The ISF is scheduled to be withdrawn after elections are held during 2012.[72]

The presence of UN police and Australian troops was a key issue in the 2007 East Timorese presidential election. The winning candidate, José Ramos-Horta, backed the presence of foreign forces and told rallies that he would like these forces to remain for at least five years. Most other candidates called for the UN and ISF to withdraw as soon as possible, arguing that their presence limits East Timor's sovereignty. Despite the differing views on how long the UN and ISF should remain in East Timor, all the parties regard the presence of foreign peacekeepers as being necessary until the F-FDTL and PNTL are ready to take responsibility for the country's security.[81]

While the UN has historically been reluctant to engage with the F-FDTL, several bilateral donors have assisted the force's development. Australia has provided extensive training and logistical support to the F-FDTL since it was established, and currently provides advisors who are posted to the F-FDTL and Ministry of Defence and Security. Portugal also provides advisors and trains two naval officers each year in Portugal. China has provided US$1.8 million in aid to the F-FDTL since 2002 and agreed to build a new US$7 million headquarters for the force in late 2007. East Timor is one of Brazil's main destinations for aid and the Brazilian Army is responsible for training the F-FDTL's military police unit. The United States also provides a small amount of assistance to the F-FDTL through the State Department's International Military Education and Training Program. While Malaysia has provided training courses and financial and technical aid, this assistance was suspended after the 2006 crisis.[82] Under current arrangements Portugal provides the F-FDTL with basic and advanced training while Australia and other nations provide training in specialized skills.[60]


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