By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 20, 2008 - The scenario threatened to bring world economies to their knees: A fictional terrorist group took control of an island off Panama, planted mines at approaches to the Panama Canal and threatened to cut off free access to the pivotal waterway. Panama turned for help to the United Nations, which passed a resolution authorizing a coalition to take action.
The result, being played out during the annual Fuerzas Aliadas Panamax exercise, is a 20-nation coalition that has committed about 7,000 troops, more than 30 ships and a dozen aircraft to countering the fictional Liberation Martyrs' Brigade.
The exercise kicked off Aug. 11 and continues through Aug. 22, with live and simulated activities in Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and the United States.
Cosponsored by U.S. Southern Command and the Panamanian government, Panamax brings together sea, air and land forces in a joint, combined operation focused on defending one of the world's most strategic and economically crucial waterways, said Bill Knightly, SouthCom's training and exercises director.
"We are integrating land, maritime, air, Special Forces operations and selected interagency organizations in a realistic and challenging training environment," Knightly told civilian community leaders from throughout the United States who observed the training yesterday. The group visited the combined exercise control group's center, then flew offshore to the USS Tarawa, which serves as the command and control flagship for the exercise.
"This is a big, broad exercise agenda," Knightly told the group.
With maritime interdiction operations, mine countermeasures and "visit, board, search and seizure" operations on vessels operated by the fictional terrorists, Panamax provides a unique opportunity for participants to work together to face off against a common threat, he said.
The scenario also weaves in opportunities for land-based training in El Salvador and Honduras focused on peacekeeping and stability operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a fictional tropical storm hits Honduras.
Knightly emphasized the international aspect of Panamax, noting it has continued to expand since the United States, Panama and Chile participated in the first one in 2003. This year, that lineup has grown to also include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and Uruguay. France, Mexico, Paraguay and Spain are participating as observers.
Three international organizations -- the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Conference of Central American Armies -- also are involved.
"Everything you will see in this exercise emphasizes and focuses on the multinational," Knightly said. "We are a region that works together as a coalition. It is not the U.S. It is not NATO. It is the coalition of our region, ... and we take a regional approach to everything. That's one of the underlying themes of this exercise."
Destroyer Squadron 40 Commodore Navy Capt. Rudy Laco called the level of international cooperation demonstrated in Panamax essential to strengthening interoperability and ensuring hemispheric stability. "In the event of a real-world situation requiring a multinational effort, the groundwork we're laying here will be invaluable," he said.
Navy Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet, said Panamax offers the perfect scenario to reinforce the importance of combined operations. "The Panama Canal is a great template for us to work on, because every country has an interest in it because it is so critical to commerce," he said. "Everybody has an interest in protecting the Panama Canal."
Lessons being learned through Panamax have far-reaching implications, Kernan said.
"This is what we should be doing around the world all the time, in every region that we are in ... working collaboratively in a cooperative security environment," he said. "That is probably the greatest deterrent we can have, building relationships with countries around the world."
But accomplishing that, he said, requires the countries involved to engage with each other to better understand each other's perspectives, cultures and ways of doing things. "So I think that is one of the bedrocks of this Panamax," he said. "That is why this exercise is such an extraordinary training opportunity. In my mind, it is all about engagement with the other nations."
U.S. Army South, with headquarters in San Antonio, is leading this year's overall exercise. In addition, almost 200 soldiers make up the core of the Multinational Force South element at Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador, and the Texas National Guard's 36th Infantry Division is the biggest player in Multinational Division South at Soto Cano Air Base, in Honduras.
Meanwhile, five U.S. Navy ships are among coalition vessels at sea in the Caribbean and Pacific protecting approaches to the Panama Canal as part of a U.S. Navy South-led Combined Forces Maritime Component Command.
Other U.S. participants include airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., and special operators from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.
One of the most promising developments in the Panamax exercises, Kernan said, has been the strong role partner nations have taken on from the planning stages through execution. Most significantly, a Brazilian admiral serves as task force commander on the Caribbean side of the canal and a Chilean admiral is in charge on the Pacific side.
"That is an important message, and everybody is doing extraordinarily well," Kernan said. He noted that partner-nation representatives serve in key roles throughout the exercise, giving briefings on everything from intelligence operations to plans, and that coalition partners work together at every level of play.
In USS Tarawa's Joint Operations Center, Canadian Navy Lt. Jeff Hamilton served as officer of the deck. Brazilian, Panamanian, Costa Rican and U.S. sailors surrounded him, working shoulder to shoulder as they monitored the maritime operations.
"This is a chance for these partners to work together, not only to participate, but to be the leadership," Knightly said.
"They are not followers, they are leaders, which in my mind is really important," echoed Kernan. "We are not in the lead in any of the missions. The key here is that they are being run by the region, and we are facilitating. In my mind, that makes this a really extraordinary exercise."