By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 21, 2008 - Army Lt. Col. Mike Panko knows what it's like to operate in a joint, combined warfighting environment. Working at the corps level in Baghdad from 2003 to 2004, he interfaced closely with coalition partners and dealt with the day-to-day challenges of different equipment, operating procedures, rules of engagement and communications systems. Now he and others involved in the Fuerzas Aliadas-Panamax exercise under way in Central America and the United States are helping ensure the real-life lessons they learned during joint, coalition and interagency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan get translated into the training environment.
Panamax, which wraps up today, brought together sea, ground and air forces from 20 countries in response to a fictional threat to the Panama Canal. Secondary scenarios woven into the 11 days of play included combat, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions.
"We are integrating land, maritime, air, Special Forces operations and selected interagency organizations in a realistic and challenging training environment," said Bill Knightly, U.S. Southern Command's training and exercises director. "This is a big, broad exercise agenda."
That's a huge shift from 2003, when just the United States, Panama and Chile participated in the first Panamax.
"Panamax used to be a strictly naval operation, but it truly has become a joint, combined exercise, because that is the way we operate," said Army Lt. Col. Ted Johnson, chief of U.S. Army South's training and readiness division.
Johnson served with the Combined Land Forces Component Command at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and experienced firsthand the gap left when the U.S. interagency process wasn't incorporated from the beginning.
"We didn't have that interagency piece ready with the Department of State and Department of Justice and others, and we all learned from that," he said.
"The bottom line is that DoD can't do it all. It takes all instruments of national power," said Army Col. John Brau, logistics chief for U.S. Army South and senior liaison to the joint task force during Panamax. "We recognize that we can kill anything and we can destroy armies. But as experience has shown, that doesn't mean that you have won."
As a result, the so-called DIME principle – marshalling diplomatic, information and economic capabilities as well as military ones – is now integrated as tightly into training scenarios as real-world operations. For example, this year's Panamax exercise includes representatives not only of several U.S. government agencies, but also the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Conference of Central American Armies.
That kicks training scenarios up a notch to reflect the complexities of joint, combined and multiagency operations in a way that's both seamless and meaningful to the players involved, Panko said.
"This would all be so much easier if this was just a U.S.-only military exercise," he said, referring to the complex Panamax scenario that took a full year for U.S. Southern Command to put together. "But that's not how we want to operate. We don't want it to be just the U.S. alone," he said. "So it's our imperative to ensure that we are all able to work together."
More of the force is coming to this training environment with real-world experience operating in these environments already under their belts. That's why, as USS Tarawa sailed off shore as the flagship command and control vessel for more than 30 ships involved in the exercise, Army Capt. Joshua Gohman felt right at home in a sea of U.S. and multinational sailors in the ship's Joint Operations Center.
Gohman served as the link between Tarawa and almost 200 soldiers who made up the core of the Multinational Force South element at Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador, ensuring clear lines of communications between the headquarters operations.
"This really isn't anything out of the ordinary," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "This is a combined, joint operation, exactly like you would see in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Marine Corps Maj. James Ogletree, a reservist assigned to Marine Forces South, said his experiences in Karbala, Iraq, where he worked side by side with Army civil affairs solders as well as coalition forces, convinced him of the strengths that come from joint, combined operations.
"Each brings a different set of capabilities," he said. "Once you figure out what those capabilities are, you're able to tap into those assets."
It's a concept he said he sees reinforced during Panamax. "This gives me a better appreciation of other services' and other nations' capabilities, as well as their limitations," he said. "These are valuable lessons we need to learn here, in a training environment."
"In the Army, we say that we need to train as we fight, and that's what we are doing here," agreed Panko. "Because of the complexity of the multinational environment, it is absolutely critical that we practice as we would operate in a real-world contingency. This is the place where we identify any hiccups and work out those practices.
"The bottom line," he said, "is that if you don't practice, you don't know what you don't know."