The Barbados Defence Force
In the late 1980s, Barbados was one of only two Eastern
Caribbean states to maintain a standing military force (Antigua and
Barbuda was the other). The Barbados Defence Force (BDF) was
established in 1978 as a force completely separate from the RBPF.
It has played a leading role in the RSS. Within the RSS framework,
Barbados contributed the highest percentage of the system's budget,
provided BDF headquarters as the RSS base of operations (and the
BDF chief of staff as RSS coordinator), and informally earmarked
the BDF as the primary regional reaction force in crisis
situations. This understanding may have been abandoned, however,
when the BLP government was voted out of power in May 1986.
Domestically, the BDF was a somewhat controversial institution
insofar as its existence underscored the Barbadian (and, one might
well say, the Caribbean) ambivalence toward established military
The circumstances that led then-Prime Minister Tom Adams to
create the BDF were unsettling and worrisome to the government and
to many Barbadians. Adams's October 1976 announcement of an aborted
attempt by two United States nationals to seize power with the aid
of mercenary forces (and the explosion five days after the
announcement of a Cuban airplane at Grantley Adams International
Airport) exposed the vulnerability of small island governments to
destabilization by outside forces (just as the 1979 overthrow of
the Eric Gairy government in Grenada displayed the susceptibility
of such states to takeover by domestic dissident groups). The
establishment of the BDF was subsequently justified, at least in
the eyes of Adams and his supporters, by its successful December
1979 intervention on Union Island in St. Vincent and the
Grenadines, which quelled an uprising by militant Rastafarians (see Glossary; Regional Security Threats, 1970-81, ch. 7).
Not all Barbadians shared Adams's favorable opinion of the BDF.
Barrow, as the leader of the opposition DLP, questioned the
government's figures on defense spending and spoke out against what
he characterized as a militarization of Barbados through the
establishment of the BDF (see Controversial Security Issues, ch.
7). After his 1986 electoral victory, most observers assumed that
Prime Minister Barrow would move quickly to slash the BDF's ranks
and budget. However, Barrow's moves in this regard were more
tentative and ambivalent than anticipated.
After his May election, Barrow publicly expressed his
objections to the October 1983 intervention in Grenada, stating
that he would not have allowed BDF forces to participate and would
not have acquiesced to the use of Barbados as a staging area had he
been prime minister at the time. He also objected to the notion of
a treaty formalizing the RSS and pledged himself not to sign such
a document. Barrow seemed more reassuring in a September 1986
address to BDF units, during which he denied any plans for a
"wholesale retrenchment" of the force.
By December, Barrow was once again vowing to cut back BDF
forces or to phase them out entirely. Barbados did not need a
defense force, he stated, because the only real threat it faced
emanated from the United States, a superpower. These strong words
were not followed by action until March 1987, when Barrow announced
a freeze in BDF recruiting, a rather conservative approach to
thinning the ranks. Subsequently, the government did submit an FY
1988 budget that called for deep cuts in capital expenditure for
defense. By the time of his death, it seemed clear that Barrow was
intent on scaling back the size of the BDF, particularly the ground
forces, and emphasizing its missions of airport security and
maritime patrol and interdiction over its role as the primary
reaction force within the RSS.
As conceived by Adams, the BDF was not to be tasked with
domestic police duties. The prime minister believed that the
assignment of internal security responsibilities to an army paved
the way for domestic repression; this belief was reinforced by
events in Grenada under the Bishop regime. Despite Adams's desire
to distance the BDF from domestic affairs, the organization could
still be considered an internal security force insofar as its
primary mission was to defend the existing government against
externally sponsored or assisted coup attempts. In the late 1980s,
the domestic duties of BDF ground forces were limited to relief
efforts in the wake of such natural disasters as hurricanes; BDF
troops performed such duty not only in Barbados but also in
Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The size of the BDF was unclear in the late 1980s; estimates
ranged from 300 to 1,800, with 500 the most commonly cited figure.
BDF force levels were considered confidential under the Adams
government. The steady rise in defense spending from 1979 through
1986 probably indicated a steady increase in BDF personnel over
that period. Because the defense budget was not made public, the
breakdown of personnel versus equipment expenditures was uncertain.
The BDF included ground, naval (coast guard), and air branches.
The inventories of the latter two arms were limited. The maritime
responsibilities of the coast guard included interdiction of
vessels engaged in smuggling and drug trafficking, search and
rescue, immigration control, and protection of fishing grounds in
cooperation with other regional states under the terms of the 1982
Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS--see Glossary)
Memorandum of Understanding. The air branch of the BDF apparently
was tasked primarily with transport duties, reflecting the BDF's
important role within the RSS. The BDF was also reported to include
a reserve component.
The BDF was both a recipient and a provider of training. The
coast guard received the lion's share of the foreign training
provided to BDF personnel. Formerly handled by Britain and the
United States, this foreign training program was transferred to
Canada by the Barrow government in August 1986. Barbadian trainers
assisted in the instruction of paramilitary troops from other
Despite the concerns of Barrow and others, most observers in
the late 1980s did not perceive the BDF to be a direct threat to
democratic government. One author, Gary P. Lewis, has cited
Barbados' well-established constitutional system and tradition of
public accountability, as well as its relatively high level of
economic development, as strong disincentives to military influence
in the political arena.
* * *
F.A. Hoyos's Barbados: A History from the Amerindians to
Independence and Ronald Tree's A History of Barbados
provide a thorough account of Barbados prior to independence.
Hoyos's Builders of Barbados and Grantley Adams and the
Social Revolution span all of Barbadian history to the 1970s.
The Barbadian journal the Bajan also provides useful data on
recent events. Information on population, health, and education is
available in a number of works, including Carleen O'Loughlin's
Economic and Political Change in the Leeward and Windward
Islands, Graham Dann's The Quality of Life in Barbados,
Kempe Ronald Hope's Economic Development in the Caribbean,
and the Pan American Health Organization's Health Conditions in
the Americas, 1981-84. Background information on the Barbadian
economy is presented in the Caribbean Economic Handbook by
Peter D. Fraser and Paul Hackett and The Economy of Barbados,
1946-1980 by DeLisle Worrell; statistical data are available in
the government of Barbados' annual Barbados Economic Report
and five-year Barbados Development Plan 1983-1988, as well
as in the annual Economic Review by the CBB. (For further
information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of November 1987