By Rob McIlvaineAugust 11, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Aug. 11, 2011) -- More than 3,500 participants from 17 nations will take part in PANAMAX 2011, a 12-day exercise beginning Monday, which is focused on ensuring the security of the Panama Canal.
Maj. Gen. Simeon G. Trombitas, Army South commanding general, visited the Pentagon last month to discuss the importance of this upcoming exercise and talk about the far-reaching work of Army South in building partner-nation capacity.
PANAMAX 2011 is one of the largest multi-national training exercises and will take place off the coasts of Panama and locations in the United States, including: Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Miami; Naval Station Mayport, Fla.; Stennis, Miss.; and elsewhere from Aug. 15-26.
An opening ceremony will take place Tuesday at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, headquarters of U.S. Army South. U.S., Panamanian and Colombian officials will be among representatives from the 17 nations participating in the opening ceremony.
The fact that Colombia is leading the land component portion of the exercise is a testament to Army South successfully executing its mission of building partner-nation capacity in its area of responsibility, Trombitas said.
This multi-national exercise, led by U.S. Southern Command and Army South, will also include Marine Forces South, Special Operations Command South, Naval Forces Southern Command and armed forces from 16 other nations.
Army South's mission is to conduct theater-security cooperation in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility to enhance security and stability in our hemisphere, Trombitas said.
PANAMAX will focus on defending the Panama Canal from attacks by organized terrorist organizations, as well as responding to natural disasters and pandemic outbreaks. Command and control for much of the exercise will take place at Army South headquarters.
"We’ll bring about 55 Colombian officers to form a land component staff at Fort Sam Houston," Trombitas said, "and then bring officers from other countries to participate as staff members, and in this manner, we’ll learn to work together, plan for military operations to defend the Panama Canal, to planning for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.”
In addition to the U.S. and Colombia, participating nations include Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru.
While the focus of the exercise continues to be the Panama Canal, the complexity of the exercises has grown, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Edward Rodgers. Rodgers is exercises branch chief for SOUTHCOM’s theater engagement directorate, which oversees PANAMAX planning coordination.
This year will also include an event where about 22 ships will work north and south of the Panama Canal during the exercise. This part was simulated last year because both the U.S. and partner nations wanted to reduce the amount of expenditures they had to outlay, Rodgers said.
Because of the democratic growth in the region and the far-reaching efforts of SOUTHCOM and Army South, much has changed since the early 1900s, when the Panama Canal was built.
“The Panama Canal was originally a French effort to join the two oceans together," Trombitas said. “But due to disease and financial issues they were not able to complete the project. The United States finished the project (and) it was initiated in 1914 by President Theodore Roosevelt, but it was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that war was starting in Europe,” Trombitas said.
ARMY SOUTH GUARDS CANAL
The Army has gone through many changes since President Theodore Roosevelt appointed an Isthmian Canal Convention in 1904 and a force known as the Panama Canal Guard.
From that time on, Trombitas said, from about 1914 until 1999, the canal was administrated by the Panama Canal Convention which was a United States-advised asset. There was a separate canal zone -- a protected area -- on either side of the canal that was U.S. territory.
Army South, established as a major Army command December 1986, had the mission of defending the canal since its inception. The canal was given back to Panama in 1999 under a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
“And the Panamanians have seamlessly and really flawlessly transitioned, and now not only control the Panama Canal but are expanding it to allow larger ships to transit through so almost any class of ship in the world today will be able to pass through the canal once those improvements are made,” he said.
“Its security is always on our mind to ensure that we have the economic freedom in this hemisphere necessary to operate. We, in conjunction with all of our partners to the south, feel responsibility to secure that piece of infrastructure because it provides for the economy of all,” Trombitas said.
Once focused exclusively on the Panama Canal, Army South now has a much larger role in the region.
The command enhances hemispheric security by building strong relationships, enhancing mutual capabilities, and improving interoperability with the armies and security forces of South and Central America and the Caribbean.
In addition to PANAMAX, the command participates in army-to-army exercises, counter illicit-trafficking operations, peace-keeping missions, humanitarian missions, disaster relief, and senior level strategic staff talks.
Army South exercises military command and control of all assigned U.S. Army component personnel and units, in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility.
Its motto, he says, is “Defense and Fraternity,” meaning the command defends the southern flanks of the United States while fostering partnership with all of this country’s neighbors in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Army South has also moved many times before finding its new home in the historic Old Brooke Army Medical Center building in September 2002 at Fort Sam Houston. The new Brooke Army Medical Center complex began construction in 1987 and now houses the Army’s medical research and training.
INTERACTION WITH PARTNER NATIONS
Many longstanding democracies in South and Central America have been, for years, allies of the United States.
“For example, the Brazilians sent a division to fight with the U.S. Army in World War II in Italy," Trombitas said. "The Colombians provided naval forces and land forces for the war in Korea, as part of the United Nations effort. Currently, the Colombians provide a battalion to the peace-keeping effort in the Sinai.
“El Salvador has provided troops to accompany us in operations in Iraq. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, they were there for 11 rotations; and initially, the countries of Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua also sent soldiers to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Trombitas said.
In November, the commanding general and command sergeant major of the Peruvian Army and their spouses visited Army South headquarters to promote bilateral efforts, develop professional partnerships, and increase interaction between the two armies.
Currently, in Haiti, there’s a peace-keeping mission there, known as MINUSTAH. This stands for Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haïti, which is French for United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. While this is a U.N. force, the bulk of that is made up of Central and South American countries.
Operation Unified Response was the United States military’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“So, when Army South conducted Operation Unified Response, we worked closely with those nations. We were able to do that very easily because of our previous relationship with the chains of command in those countries, and the interoperability we practice through our exercises, and through those years of constant contact with our partners to the south.
“We conduct a number of exercises that are called “Beyond the Horizon,” and in Haiti, specifically, “New Horizons.” These are U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercises and U.S. Army South is the executive agent.
“So, we provided forces to go to various countries to assist in those civil-military activities that help for humanitarian assistance and practice for our response in disaster relief,” Trombitas said. “This year, we worked in three countries: El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. In each country, we conducted engineering projects where we enhanced or built clinics and schools.”
Also, he said, each exercise included medical readiness missions, veterinarian missions, where medical personnel from the U.S. and partner nations treated thousands of people who otherwise would not have seen medical care.
“During the medical projects in Haiti for New Horizons, it was very much multi-national and multi-component. The major force came from the Louisiana National Guard and incorporated into the exercise were a platoon from Belize, doctors from Canada and Colombia, as well,” Trombitas said.