Thursday, August 19, 2010

Multinational Exercise Focuses On Panama Canal Defense

More than 2,000 participants from 18 countries are taking part in Panamax 2010, one of the world's largest multinational maritime training exercises, aimed at defense of the Panama Canal.

Cosponsored by U.S. Southern Command and the Panamanian government, the 12-day exercise that kicked off Aug. 16 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, SOUTHCOM officials said.

Participants will test their ground, naval, air and special operators' ability to respond to threats to the Panama Canal during the exercise taking place off the coast of Panama and Colombia, and also in Miami and Mayport, Fla., and Norfolk, Va.

In addition, Panamax 2010 participants will exercise their ability to plan for a major humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission in the region, officials said.

Major players in the exercise -- part live play and part virtual -- include the U.S. 4th Fleet, which will exercise command and control from its maritime operations center in Mayport, Fla.; and the U.S. 2nd Fleet, which will serve as a joint task force leading a multinational force operating under a United Nations resolution.

Navy ship Grasp and Coast Guard cutter Forward are among 24 vessels taking part in the exercise, as well as units from 12th Air Force in Tucson, Ariz., and U.S. Army South from Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Service members participating in Panamax bring a broad range of capabilities, said Jose Ruiz, a SOUTHCOM spokesman. They represent medical, diving and salvage units, explosive ordnance disposal and riverine units, all with roles to play in the evolving exercise scenario.

Navy Rear Adm. Vic Guillory, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet, emphasized the importance of partnerships and the role of global maritime forces in protecting the Panama Canal Zone.

Panamax offers "a tremendous opportunity to share and exchange information and learn from one another in a coalition and joint environment," he said.

Navy Vice Adm. Daniel P. Holloway, the commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet and director of the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence, said Panamax will promote interoperability that's critical in that joint coalition environment.

"We want to do these exercises now, at a time of peace, so that if the crisis occurs, we have already established the protocols in our relationships," he said.

In addition to the U.S. and Panama, participants in Panamax 2010 include Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Panamax has grown dramatically since 2003, when Panama, Chile and the U.S. conducted the first exercise in the series. Last year, participation peaked with 20 nations taking part in Panamax 2009. Collectively, they contributed about 7,000 service members, more than 30 ships and a dozen aircraft to the exercise.

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