Timor Leste Defence Force

The Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste (Tetum: Forcas Defesa Timor Lorosae English: Timor Leste Defence Force) 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.

In practice the responsibilities of the F-FDTL and the Policia National de Timor Leste (PNTL) are not clearly delineated, and this has led to conflict between the two organisations. While the F-FDTL has no formal police functions, it has taken on a policing role on several occasions. Conversely, the National Police (Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste, PNTL) have been involved in border defence operations near the western border. The conflicting roles of the police and military between have been aggravated by the East Timorese Government's failure to establish a national security policy.



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. Following the end of Indonesian rule, FALINTIL proposed the establishment of a large military of about 5,000 personnel.

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. 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. The plan was also accepted by all the countries that had contributed peacekeeping forces to East Timor. 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.

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.

Formation of the F-FDTL

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. 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. Due to the force's prestige and relatively high pay, 7,000 applicants applied for the first 267 positions in the battalion. The F-FDTL's small Naval Component was established in December 2001.

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. 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.

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. 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.

The F-FDTL has suffered from serious morale and disciplinary problems since its establishment. 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. 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.

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. These tensions were caused by the overlapping roles of the two security services and differences of opinion between members of East Timor's leadership.

2006 crisis

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. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Force development plans

The 2006 crisis left the F-FDTL "in ruins". 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. 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.

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. The resulting Force 2020 document was completed in 2006 and made public in 2007. 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.

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". 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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. Despite Reinado's death, the continued presence of hundreds of disaffected former soldiers poses a threat to East Timor's internal security.


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.

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 has rendered this oversight largely ineffectual and has retarded the development of East Timor's defence policy. The failure to institute effective civilian oversight of the F-FDTL has also limited the extent to which foreign countries are willing to provide assistance to the F-FDTL and contributed to the 2006 crisis.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. Few women have joined the F-FDTL, however.


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. Each battalion has three rifle companies, a support company and a headquarters company. 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.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported the army's size in 2007 as 1,250. The army has suffered a high loss of personnel as a result of the 2006 crisis and only 700 of the 1,450 soldiers who were in the army in 2005 were still enlisted in August 2007. In August 2007 the commander of the F-FDTL sought government approval to recruit 600 soldiers in 2008 and a further 600 in 2009. As at August 2008 recruitment of additional personnel was in progress and the F-FDTL was yet to reach its pre-2006 strength.

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. The 2nd Battalion is stationed at the Nicolau Lobato Training Centre near Metinaro. Almost all of the 2nd Battalion's soldiers were dismissed during the 2006 crisis.

Logistics and service support is provided through Headquarters F-FDTL in Dili. There is also a military police unit that controls both the military and regular police and performs traditional policing tasks, resulting in conflicting roles with the PNTL. The military police have also been responsible for presidential security since February 2007.

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.

Naval Component

The Naval Component of the F-FDTL was established in December 2001 when Portugal transferred two small Albatroz class patrol boats from the 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. 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.

The Naval Component's two ships are named Oecussi and Atauro and each is armed with a single 20 mm Oerlikon cannon and two 12.7 mm machine guns. Both ships are based at Hera Harbour a few kilometres east of Dili. 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. The patrol boats' high operating costs are a significant constraint on the Naval Component. On 12 April 2008 East Timor signed a contract for two new Chinese-built 43 metre long 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 East Timorese personnel being trained in China. 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.

Reports on the Naval Component's strength are contradictory; while the 2007–2008 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships states that 150 personnel are under training, the 2007 edition of the IISS Military Balance lists the Naval Component's size as 36 personnel. Australian academic Desmond Ball states that the Naval Component's authorised strength in 2002 was 50 personnel.

Defence expenditure and procurement

East Timor's current defence expenditure is not recorded in international publications and the country 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. 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.

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. 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.

Foreign defence relations

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 31 January 2008 UNMIT had a strength of 1,476 uniformed personnel, including 1,444 police and 32 military observers. These personnel were supported by 336 international civilians, 791 local civilian workers and 117 UN volunteers.

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 750 Australians and 170 New Zealanders. About 200 personnel from the Portuguese paramilitary Republican National Guard are also deployed to East Timor but do not come under the command of the ISF.

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 PDTL are ready to take responsibility for the country's security.

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.



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