The Caribbean island state of Jamaica is probably best known for Reggae music and the exploits of its sprinters at the Olympics and other international athletics competitions. Less well-known is the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). Aside from dealing with internal violence, the JDF participated in Operation Urgent Fury, the US-led intervention in Grenada, in 1983, and often takes part in peace and disaster relief missions in the Caribbean. For this task, it can count on some state-of-the-art modern equipment.
Though considerably smaller in size than Guyana, Jamaica, with its 2,720,554 inhabitants, is the largest of the English-speaking Caribbean territories in terms of population. Just under 1.2 million of these live in the metropolitan area of the capital, Kingston. Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean, and is 145 km south of Cuba, the largest, and 191 km south-west of Hispaniola, the second largest. The interior is quite mountainous, but there are large flatlands, where most of the population live. The tropical climate on the island has allowed the development of a strong tourism industry.
Very Brief History of Colonial Jamaica
Although Spain initially occupied the island of Jamaica as early as Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, it is more frequently associated with the English/British occupation. The island was captured by the English Commonwealth in 1655 and was soon populated by Irish and Scottish prisoners of war, in addition to the local inhabitants.
The island became a safe haven for privateers, buccaneers, and pirates, who raided ships and settlements, especially those of the Spanish, in the Caribbean. The famous Welsh privateer, Henry Morgan, rose to become Lieutenant Governor of the island. During the mid-seventeenth century, the sugar economy boomed. Black slaves from Africa were transported to work on the plantations. Between 1690 and 1800, the black slave population on the island increased tenfold, from 30,000 to 300,000. During this period, there were multiple slave revolts. Black slaves often united with the original inhabitants to fight against the English/British colonialists. Even after the abolition of slavery in 1834, racial tensions remained high, with a major rebellion taking place in 1865. To this day, the impact that these experiences have had on Jamaican society can still be felt.
In 1866, Jamaica became a crown colony, centralizing power in London. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the island’s sugar economy began to decline. Economic struggles continued and Jamaica was particularly hard hit by the 1929 Great Depression. A combination of factors led to the rise of a leftist self-determination movement on the island. Limited self-government would eventually be introduced in 1944, with universal suffrage for elections.
Jamaicans fought for the British Empire in both world wars. During the Great War, Jamaican troops were part of the British West Indies Regiment, which fought in France and Flanders, Egypt and Palestine, and Italy. During the Second World War, many Caribbeans volunteered for the different branches of the British Army. In 1944, the Caribbean Regiment was created. It was based in Egypt and never saw frontline action.
Colonial elections in Jamaica were dominated by the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), which, curiously, given its name, is a center-right conservative political party, and the center-left People’s National Party (PNP).
In 1958, following calls for independence or increased autonomy, the United Kingdom created the West Indies Federation, made up of the majority of its Caribbean territories. This self-governing federal political entity was intended to become, in the mid-term, a fully independent state.
The Federation faced problems from the very start. Jamaica, geographically distant from the other islands of the Federation and with a larger population than any of the other territories, was hugely dissatisfied with the union, believing that its share of seats in the federal parliament meant it was under-represented. Many in Jamaica feared that the smaller islands would drain the country’s resources. Furthermore, Kingston, the Jamaican capital, had not been chosen as the Federation’s seat of power. All these objections, together with inter-island rivalry, led to a referendum on continued membership of the Federation in September 1961, in which 54% of Jamaicans voted to leave the Federation.
In the election in April 1962, pro-Federation incumbent, Norman Manley of the PNP, was defeated by the JPS’s anti-Federation Alexander Bustamante. A few months later, in June, the UK Parliament passed the Jamaica Independence Act, granting full independence, on August 6th.
Jamaica since Independence
Although independent, Jamaica retained very close links with the United Kingdom, joining the Commonwealth of Nations and retaining the British monarch, Elizabeth II, as head of state. Militarily, Jamaica has also retained very close links with the UK and the JDF has historically been armed with equipment of British and Commonwealth origin.
The post-independence Jamaican economy shifted from being agriculture-based to industrial. The main export product was Bauxite, the world’s main source of Aluminum.
Domestic politics in the aftermath of independence were divisive. There were several riots throughout the 1960s, many of which were ethnic in nature. The normalization of violence spilled over into the realm of politics in the 1970s. Both major parties, the JLP and PNP, sought the support of gangs and crime bosses. Each side accused the other of being a puppet of the major players in the Cold War. The violence was most accentuated during Michael Manley’s first stint as Prime Minister between 1972 and 1980. Manley, who was the son of Norman Manley, openly praised Fidel Castro and Cuba and reduced cooperation with the United States. Manley invested heavily in welfare, introducing free healthcare to all Jamaicans.
During this period, members of the JDF were involved in plots against Manley’s government. In 1976, a JLP politician along with a former JDF officer were arrested for planning a coup, but were released due to lack of evidence. A second more serious plot was thwarted in June 1980, when 33 JDF officers were arrested and were found guilty of plotting to commandeer two armored cars to overthrow the government.
The weeks leading up to elections in this period were marked by extreme violence. Over a hundred people were killed prior to the 1976 election. In 1978, five JLP supporters were ambushed and murdered by members of the JDF. The run-up to the 1980 election was especially bloody, with over 800 people being killed. The election resulted in Manley’s defeat and Edward Seaga of the JLP became the new Prime Minister. After this, political violence became less common.
Under Seaga, Jamaica sought closer ties with the USA, reversed some of Manley’s policies, and privatized some industries. Jamaica cut diplomatic ties with Cuba and took part in Operation Urgent Fury against Grenada in 1983.
In spite of winning re-election in 1983, Seaga fell out of favor with the USA. There were several riots in Jamaica between 1987 and 1988. The situation further deteriorated in September 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert, one of the most intense cyclones ever recorded in history, caused billions of dollars in damage.
Michael Manley, on a more moderate platform, defeated Seaga in the 1989 election, only to step down in 1992 in favor of his Deputy, Percival Patterson. The 1990s were a period dominated by the PNP, which invested millions in welfare and improving Jamaica’s infrastructure.
The PNP’s era of dominance would end in the 2007 election, which saw Bruce Golding elected as Prime Minister. It was during his premiership that the Tivoli Incursion, one of the biggest episodes of gang violence, took place.
Throughout the era of political violence in the 1970s, the Shower Posse, an armed gang specializing in drug and weapons trafficking, was used by the JLP to confront and intimidate its opponents. Financed and armed by the CIA, the gang’s base in Tivoli Gardens, a part of the Kingston Western constituency, previously held by Edward Seaga and later Bruce Golding, meant it was awarded many government construction contracts. Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke took over the gang in 1990.
In March 2010, a scandal broke out around the Jamaican Government’s signing of a contract with an American law firm to lobby the US Government to rescind an application for the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. At the time, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) described Jamaican Prime Minister Golding as a “known criminal affiliate” of Coke. On May 17th, Golding issued a televised address apologizing for his involvement in the attempt to revoke the extradition request and to announce that the wheels had been set in motion to extradite the crime lord.
As a result, Coke’s associates barricaded Tivoli Gardens and fighting between Jamaican authorities and the Shower Posse ensued for a few days, leaving around a hundred dead. Coke was finally captured on June 22nd 2010 and extradited to the USA to face charges of drug smuggling.
In the aftermath of the Tivoli Incursion and the extensive damage caused to parts of Kingston, the JLP lost its grip on power. The December 2011 election saw the return of the PNP and Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister between 2006 and 2007. However, Bruce Golding’s successor, Andrew Holness, who had been Prime Minister for a brief period prior to the 2011 election, was re-elected in 2016 and again in 2020. Despite the measures taken against the Shower Posse in 2010, it remains active, as do many others, and inter-gang violence and fighting against the security forces is, by no means, a rare event.
The JDF’s Armor
Ferret Scout Car
The JDF’s first available vehicles on independence were up to 15 second-hand, worn-out Ferret Scout Cars. It is unclear if these were left by the British after independence, if they were transferred to the JDF as part of the independence arrangement, or for some other reason.
Most sources state that Jamaica’s Ferrets were Mk 4s, but this model only entered production in 1970. It is likely that Jamaica’s Ferrets were Mk 2s with the Saracen turret with two doors. The lack of visible stowage, extension collar, extra antenna mark, and appliqué armor in the available photographs, show that they are not the Mk 2/1, Mk 2/2, Mk 2/3, or Mk 2/4 respectively.
The Ferret Mk 2 was almost exactly like a Mk 1, a mounted turret from an Alvis Saracen armored personnel carrier armed with a .303 Bren light machine gun being the only difference. Even during its development, it was apparent that the open-top turretless Mk 1 would be vulnerable to fire in its intended reconnaissance role, hence the introduction of the Mk 2. Somewhat ironically, the first Mk 2 was delivered a whole two months before the Mk 1. The Ferret was a light, fast, 4.32 tonnes vehicle capable of reaching 93 km/h.
Very little is known of their service in Jamaica and few photos exist. It is probable that they were used to dissuade rioters during the many episodes of violence in Jamaica in the 1960s and early 1970s. The available sources indicate that they were poorly maintained while in service. With the arrival of the V-150s in the late 1970s, the Ferrets were decommissioned. Two of Jamaica’s Ferrets survive to this day as gate guardians at the Jamaica Military Museum and Library, with another inside the museum grounds.
Cadillac Gage V-150 Commando Armored Car
As the Ferrets’ poor maintenance was hastening their obsolescence and the political violence was spiraling out of control, Jamaica purchased a new vehicle, the American Cadillac Gage V-150 Commando Armored Car. Several sources, including the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, state that 14 V-150s were ordered in 1977 and delivered the following year. However, Radio Jamaica News and one of the island’s two main newspapers, the Jamaica Observer, citing figures provided to them by the Office of the Prime Minister, claim that two batches were sent. The first comprised 10 vehicles acquired in 1976 and a second of 4 in 1985.
The V-150 is a hybrid of the V-100 and V-200. It is very similar to the V-100, but has stronger axles and suspension allowing a turret capable of carrying heavier weapons, such as a 90 mm gun. The V-150 has been an export success for Cadillac Gage, seeing service in nations around the globe .
At a weight of 9.8 tonnes, the V-150 was considerably bigger and heavier than the Ferrets previously used by the JDF. Jamaica’s V-150s seemed to have been armed only with what might have been 7.62 mm FN MAG machine guns, as those were already in service with the JDF, but it is possible they were other machine guns of that caliber.
The V-150s arrived towards the end of the decade of the bloodiest political violence in Jamaican history and they were used as a countermeasure to dissuade rioters and clear burning roadblocks, but also for post-disaster response and rescue operations. As was the case with the Ferrets, the V-150s were poorly maintained, and by 2009 only three remained operational.
The most notable deployment of the JDF’s V-150s was during the Tivoli Incursion in May 2010 against Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke and his drug gang, the Shower Posse. The JDF and a number of V-150s were deployed alongside the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). They were mainly used to clear roadblocks and to provide cover for the foot soldiers trying to gain control of the neighborhood.
In December 2013, the Jamaican Cabinet approved the order to acquire new vehicles, as the V-150s were obsolete and unserviceable. At least one vehicle is preserved at the Jamaica Military Museum and Library.
Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle
Given the poor state of the V-150s in service, of which only 3 were able to participate in the Tivoli Incursion, the Jamaican cabinet announced on December 3rd 2013 that they would purchase 12 Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles from Thales Australia.
In a statement released on December 6th, Thales Australia stated that “the Jamaica Defence Force has a longstanding interest in Bushmaster” and that they were “very pleased to add them as an export customer”. The statement confirmed that all 12 Bushmasters would be of the troop-carrying variant equipped with Thales’s SOTAS M2 communication system.
The first batch of 3 vehicles arrived in Jamaica in March 2015, followed by another 3 in November 2016, and the last shipment of the remaining 6 in January 2016. The deal also included a 5-year support package to “ensure the highest levels of availability and performance”.
Two Bushmasters were widely photographed on patrol on November 20th 2015, perhaps the first operational deployment with the JDF. On January 13th 2016, at an event presided over by Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, Jamaica’s Bushmasters were integrated into the newly formed Protected Mobility Vehicle Squadron (PMVS) at Up Camp Park, part of the Combat Support Battalion Headquarters, itself only created in January 2009. An Anglican priest blessed all the vehicles.
The Bushmasters have mainly picked up where the V-150s left off, being used in actions against the powerful armed gangs, especially in the area of West Kingston.
Following the success of the initial 12 vehicles, a new €7 million deal was signed with Thales Australia in June 2020 for an additional 6 Bushmasters, 3 troop-carrying and 3 ambulances. Unlike the previous vehicles, the new Bushmasters are equipped with fully integrated Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) that provide power and supplementary air conditioning when the engine is off. At the time of publishing, these have yet to be delivered.
Throughout its existence, the JDF has also made use of a number of armed light vehicles. In its early days, it used at least one Jeep armed with a Browning M1919 machine gun on a pedestal.
More recently, the JDF and JCF have made use of Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers for patrols.
The JDF’s Operations in Details
Operation Urgent Fury and Peacekeeping in the Caribbean
Under questionable pretexts, the USA launched an invasion of the tiny island of Grenada on October 25th 1983 to oust General Hudson Austin, who had recently taken over the country in a coup d’etat. Officially, the US intervened for three reasons: at the request of Paul Scoon, the Governor General of Grenada, who the USA considered the “sole remaining authoritative representative of Grenada”; at the request of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Barbados, and Jamaica; and to protect the lives of around 1,000 US citizens on the island, including a large number of medical students. Evidence from original White House documents proves that the US had planned to invade prior to these requests.
The OECS, Barbados, and Jamaica provided troops for the operations to form the Caribbean Peacekeeping Force (CPKF), under the command of Colonel Ken Barnes of the JDF. Jamaica was its single largest contributor, with 120 personnel from a rifle company and 30 others from a mortar and a medical section. The CPKF was mainly tasked with guarding Grenadian prisoners.
In the lead-up to Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s television announcement on May 17th 2010 declaring the extradition order for the head of the Shower Posse, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, the Jamaican security forces and the criminal underworld had been organizing.
Indeed, the JDF and the JCF had been drawing up plans since December 2009. In spite of having set up joint headquarters and having regular meetings, each force came up with their own preparations, Operation Garden Parish by the JDF and Operation Keywest by the JCF. The commission of inquiry set up to study the planning and delivery of the operations in the aftermath of the Tivoli Incident found that neither force was aware of the other’s plans and that no joint training had taken place. Furthermore, Golding’s May 17th announcement had taken both forces by surprise, giving Coke and his supporters valuable time to organize.
Coke could reckon on significant levels of support in Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston more widely. Many saw, and still see him as a Robin Hood-like figure, having paved the way for improvements in the standard of living of the poorest inhabitants of those areas. Coke mobilized this support and shortly after Golding’s announcement, the neighborhood was up in arms. Barricades made out of old vehicles, domestic appliances, and scrap metal, some of which had remotely-triggered explosives in them, were erected at the entrances to the neighborhood, and were guarded by heavily armed gang members. Coke also requested reinforcements from other gangs across the whole island, with around 300 pouring into Tivoli Gardens over the next few days. Coke’s supporters were armed with a mix of handguns and rifles, but also heavier weapons, such as .50 anti-materiel rifles, capable of penetrating all the Jamaican security forces’ vehicles. They also had bullet proof vests and night vision goggles.
The force assembled to arrest Coke consisted of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Jamaican Regiment of the JDF, a force of around 800 personnel, and 370 officers of the JCF. In terms of armed vehicles, the JCF’s Mobile Reserve could count on a number of Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. Additionally, the JDF provided a number of V-150s of the Combat Support Battalion (CSB) under the command of Major Mahatma Williams.
Coke’s supporters took the initiative in the early morning of May 23rd, attacking police stations and patrols and blocking roads. On the first day, a number of JCF vehicles were damaged, and one had to be abandoned at Hannah Town Police Station.
The security forces response began on May 24th. The two JDF battalions and the JCF’s Mobile Reserve were tasked with working together. The JDF and JCF troops entered Tivoli Gardens and were met by fierce resistance. One V-150 of the CSB had the role of clearing barricades with the support of lighter vehicles which were reinforced with sandbags on the bonnet and dashboards. The vehicles met with mostly inaccurate harassment fire, which merely ripped open some of the sandbags.
Another V-150, under the command of 2nd Lieutenant D. Trowers, was used to provide cover for No. 4 Platoon of Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion, which prior to that had been suffering significantly against the well-organized opposition. The V-150 seized the Passa Passa Plaza and provided the necessary momentum for No. 4 Platoon to regain the initiative.
By the late afternoon and early evening of the 25th, the Jamaican security forces were able to secure most of the area. Over the next few days, pockets of resistance were cleared up. The fighting had been so intense, that controversially, the JDF even employed 81 mm mortars in the operations, firing 37 rounds in total.
Coke escaped from Tivoli Gardens and was not found until June 22nd, after which he was extradited to the US. The death toll from the Tivoli Incursion was significant. The JDF lost one soldier and a further 30 were wounded, whilst the JCF lost 3 officers, with 28 more wounded. There were 69 civilian deaths reported, including at least 26 gang members.
Present and Future Military Situation
The lessons learnt from the Tivoli Incident proved to the Jamaican government and military authorities that there was a need to modernize the security forces. As a result, the obsolete and poorly maintained V-150s were replaced with the Bushmasters, and the JDF infantry battalions had most of their equipment, from helmets to weapons, modernized. If the Bushmasters are properly maintained, they should remain operational for a few decades and will be able to fulfill all the roles they are intended for. With no external threats to the island’s security, there is no need to invest in heavier equipment, and anti-crime operations will be the main task of the JDF and JCF for the foreseeable future.
Jamaica is alone among the English-speaking Caribbean to have military and security forces in the throes of expansion. Aside from the acquisition of the Bushmasters, the JDF has begun to establish a reserve force and a cyber command. In total, the JDF can count on 4,000 active personnel and 1,500 reserves.
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West Kingston Commission of Inquiry