More than 18 countries this week are taking part in U.S. Southern Command's annual PANAMAX exercise, with the focus this year on defending the Panama Canal, according to a SOUTHCOM statement. Specifically:
The purpose of the exercise, called PANAMAX 2010, is to enhance regional cooperation and exercise participating nations' ground, naval, air and special operators' ability to respond to threats to the Panama Canal and plan for a major humanitarian assistance and disaster relief event in the region.
Co-sponsored by the Government of Panama and U.S. Southern Command, PANAMAX 2010 is one of the largest multinational maritime training exercises in the world, and is taking place in the waters off the coasts of Panama from Aug. 16-27.
Participants will conduct naval operations as a multinational task force responding to exercise scenarios ranging from a stabilization mission to disaster relief; scripted scenarios will address maritime operations skills essential to successfully countering 21st Century threats potentially encountered in today's maritime environment.
Nations participating in PANAMAX 2010 include: Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, United States and Uruguay.
PANAMAX began in 2003 with the participation of three countries: Panama, Chile and the United States. Since then, exercise participation has grown significantly, peaking during PANAMAX 2009 with 20 nations.
InsideDefense.com reported in April that the head of SOUTHCOM said his command needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to address the biggest concern in the region: illicit trafficking in drugs, people, weapons and bulk cash:
Tackling the problem, which affects almost every part of the region, requires using ISR to glean a better understanding of the illicit trafficking enterprise, he said.
"I call it an enterprise because it's supply, transit, demand, as well as the financing that's associated with it," he said.
About 80 percent of the illicit traffic comes through the maritime environment, Fraser said. On an annual basis, SOUTHCOM is successful in disrupting about 25 percent of the cocaine and trafficking that comes through the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific, he said.
"But it's a big area," Fraser stressed, noting SOUTHCOM is looking for broad-area capacity for signals intelligence as well as electro-optical sensors. "How can we detect change?"
"We don't have the persistence of capability that we need over the broad areas," Fraser said. The command is also looking to improve information sharing with partner governments in the region.
He declined to quantify the amount of additional funding SOUTHCOM needs for ISR.
Finding traffickers' fast boats and stealthy semisubmersibles is primarily an air mission, he said. But the command also pursues a maritime mission involving Navy ships and unmanned undersea vehicles, as well as an effort to support other governments and law-enforcement agencies, he noted.
SOUTCHOM disrupted or detected 78 semisubmersibles in 2008 and 52 in 2009, he said, noting that the command is not sure if the decrease from one year to the next suggests traffickers are using the vessels less frequently or whether they have simply adopted new tactics to better avoid detection.
Semisumbersibles tend to be used at night, he noted. Just how stealthy they are was demonstrated when the U.S. military towed a captured semisubmersible behind a ship to test whether it could be seen during an exercise that depicted a fictional threat to the Panama Canal.
"And we had a pinpoint position of where it was, had a helicopter who knew exactly where it was fly over the top of it and they couldn't see it. So, it's a pretty effective means of transiting cocaine -- very difficult to detect," Fraser said. Further, if they are detected, such vessels can be quickly scuttled, he added.