Seventeen nations defend the Panama Canal from a fictional terrorist attack by using
computers instead of live training exercises
During a hypothetical scenario that played out on computer screens at Mayport Naval
Station, Florida; Headquarters United States Southern Command, Florida; and Fort Sam
Houston, Texas, United States, in August 2012, a violent extremist organization used
aircraft to assault the Panama Canal. Simultaneously, fictional terrorists launched cyber
attacks to divert and disorient forces protecting the canal and its infrastructure. Their
goal: disrupt and cripple the global economy.
“Our fictional enemies are using increasingly more modern methods to stop the
operation of the Panama Canal,” said Lieutenant Cristian Escala of Panama’s National
Air-Naval Service (SENAN). He has participated for seven years in PANAMAX, an annual U.S.
Southern Command-sponsored exercise designed to protect and guarantee safe passage of
traffic through the Panama Canal, ensure its neutrality, and respect national sovereignty.
While in previous iterations PANAMAX has been a maritime-focused exercise using
ships and planes, a new dimension was brought forth in 2012 by executing it solely through
Military members from 17 Partner Nations formed a multinational combined task force
to share information and assist with the coordination of logistics, communications,
intelligence and monitoring. Even though the members of these partner nations consisted of
all ranks and came from all the different service components, they shared the common
objective of protecting the canal, which accounts for 5 percent of global maritime trade.
PANAMAX began in 2003 under the initiative of Panama, Chile and the United States,
and exercise participation has grown every year since. The participants in the 2012 edition
included more than 600 personnel from Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican
Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama,
Paraguay, Peru and the United States.
PANAMAX 2012 tested command and control of forces across a wide range of
operations, including maritime, air, land, space and cyber. The simulated exercise scenarios
provided invaluable training on coalition command and control and combined interoperability
— the ability to work together seamlessly.
Deputy Commissioner Jorge Yanis, head of the Naval Group of SENAN, highlighted the
importance of protecting “one of the great bastions of the world.” Yanis said in addition to
cyber attacks, another new scenario at PANAMAX 2012 was responding to natural disasters,
such as earthquakes and floods, which would require humanitarian relief.
Additionally, this year’s exercise included an increased leadership role taken by
all the partner nations. Brazil led the Combined Force Maritime Component Command (CFMCC)
for the first time, directing simulations held in Florida. Colombia, for the second time,
was in charge of the Combined Force Land Component (CFLCC), held at Fort Sam Houston.
Brazilian Rear Admiral Wilson Pereira de Lima Filho stated that he does not see a
difference with leadership decisions whether the exercise uses actual ships or computer
simulation. And, since the potential threat is not easy to predict, he said that it is
important to share information in both ways. “That is fundamental in order to have mutual
trust,” he said.
Rear Admiral Lima Filho believes PANAMAX 2012 was an opportunity for the
participating nations to develop friendships, interoperability and learn from one another.
In fact, the slogan he chose in Brazil for CFMCC 2012 was “Unidos pelo mar” (Joined by the
Sea). “The sea joins countries,” he said.
Military officials gave their points of view on PANAMAX 2012.
“I believe that the important part of this [interaction] is sharing experiences,
expertise and, above all, finding a common approach [against] this type of threat, because
we don’t really know what it will be, or when it will threaten our canal.”
Deputy Commissioner Jorge Yanis Panama National Air-Naval Service
“We all have our capabilities, we have our knowledge, our unique characteristics
and together in this exercise we can share these lessons, these skills.”
Rear Adm. Wilson Pereira de Lima Filho Brazilian Navy
PANAMAX “is a source of pride because I participated in the beginning, and the
truth is that we never expected it would grow to this level. So far, it has been a source
of pride, of satisfaction and also a reason why we must continue to work to improve this
relationship that has been built over time.”
Rear Adm. Julio Leiva Molina Chilean Navy
“The Mexican Navy has decided to participate in this type of exercise because it
is important to work together with other navies. We learn the way in which other navies
work and also show them how we do things. And, it is a great opportunity to establish ties
of friendship with the other navies.”
Capt. Carlos Alberto Mendoza Rovira Mexican Navy
“Having PANAMAX for several years allows us to interact among countries, so that
in the event of a real situation we can act quickly and efficiently in protecting the
Capt. Andrés Salas Peruvian Navy
“For us it is very important that the operations on the Panama Canal are never
interrupted, otherwise our exports would stop. More so, those exports that produce income
for our country, and obviously our economy would suffer if we begin to use the sea route
around the Southern Cone since the freight costs would become more expensive.”
Capt. Ronald Muñoz Cedeño Ecuadorean Navy
“PANAMAX is a good opportunity for training, for camaraderie among the officers
who participate, for the training of the staff that operates the electronic equipment, and
for crew members of vessels when it is carried out with ships.”
Cmdr. Feliciano Pérez Carvajal Dominican Republic Navy
“The fact that we are training and carrying out joint exercises, like PANAMAX,
needs to be better disseminated. It sends a positive message to the international
community, to the world.”
Col. Edgar Ortega Martínez Colombian Army
“It has been an excellent experience working in a multinational environment. There
are many doctrine aspects that are important to know and to learn how to work with other
nations on a particular mission.”
Cmdr. Omar Hernández Martínez El Salvador Naval Force
“The experience that we’ve gained during [PANAMAX] has been very interesting. More
so, to participate and be part of a multinational force. It’s interesting because we share
experiences with military members from other nationalities and speak in two languages,
Spanish and English.”
Lt. Cmdr. Carlos Barreto Paraguayan Navy