FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, Aug. 12, 2011) -- Servicemembers from 17 nations are now gearing up to take part in the U.S. Southern Command- and U.S. Army South-sponsored "Fuerzas Aliadas" PANAMAX 2011 exercise held in Panama.

Commonly known as PANAMAX, the exercise, which runs Aug. 15-26, brings together sea, air and land forces in a joint and combined operation focused on defending the Panama Canal from attacks by an organized terrorist group as well as responding to natural disasters and pandemic outbreaks in various locations. Army South will act as the multinational force headquarters.

Representatives from 10 nations will travel to Fort Sam Houston to support both the multinational headquarters and land component staff.

"The multinational staff shows the full interoperability of our forces and partner nations," said Maj. Gen. Simeon G. Trombitas, U.S. Army South commanding general.

The simulated land component portion of the exercise will take place at Army South's headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, while naval vessels will conduct exercises near the Panama Canal.

In addition to SOUTHCOM and Army South, other U.S. armed forces commands participating in the exercise include Marine Forces South, Special Operations Command South and Naval Forces Southern Command with ships and a contingent of ordnance, mobile diving, logistics and security forces personnel operating near the Panama Canal.

"PANAMAX develops and sustains relationships that improve the capacity of our emerging and enduring partners' security forces to achieve common desired goals," said Trombitas. "This annual exercise fosters friendly cooperation and understanding among participating nations."

The Panama Canal is considered one of the most strategically and economically crucial pieces of infrastructure in the world. It is critical to the free flow of trade worldwide and the region's economic stability is largely dependent on the safe transport of several million tons of cargo through the canal each year.

This major multinational exercise has grown dramatically since 2003, when Panama, Chile and the United States conducted the first exercise.

This year, in addition to the United States and Panama, participants from Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Peru will take part in the exercise.