By Commander Robert W. Selle, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)

The construction plans are all state-of- the-art and include larger locks: 180 feet vs. 100 feet wide, 1,400 feet vs. 1,000 feet long, and 49 feet vs. 39 feet deep. In addition, the water level will be raised one-and-a-half feet by strengthening the Gatun Dam, and a new, straight, deeper channel will be dredged across Gatun Lake connecting the two lock sets.

One element of the new locks must be ascertained immediately. Can the Nimitz - and Ford -class carriers transit the canal safely? While the dimensions of both carriers are approximately the same (length 1,092 feet and beam 134 feet), will the lock width of 180 feet be adequate to accommodate the outward flair of the ship's side rising to 254 feet, the width of the flight deck? The rise and fall of the water level in each new lock chamber will be approximately 52 feet (the rise and fall of each new three-lock set will be approximately 155 feet total), and a problem of side fitting/scraping may arise when a Nimitz - or Ford -class carrier rises or falls over approximately 52 feet in any new lock chamber. But the depth of the chambers appears to be acceptable for safe passage.

Each lockset will consist of three lock chambers with the lock gates disappearing perpendicularly into the chamber walls a big improvement over the swinging gates. In addition, control towers between locksets are eliminated as well as the present electric mules. All transit control will be accomplished by three maneuverable and powerful tugboats that use the highly efficient hydro-cycloidal Voith propulsion design technology. The essential watershed area surrounding Lake Madden will also be enlarged extensively and protected from all slash and burn devastation. Water use for the project estimates a savings of more than 60 percent over the present system, clearly a compelling projection.

Most certainly these welcome developments provide a quantum leap forward for political, economic, military, environmental, ecological, and humanitarian advances, both near- and long-term. 

A Magnificent Sight

The absolutely thrilling sight awaiting us all is to see our largest carriers transit the Panama Canal. What magnificence and how stirring to all, particularly those of us in the Western Hemisphere! It is an acknowledged fact that transit of the Panama Canal makes two military ships out of one. Think of the time, fuel, and mileage saved—approximately 14,000 miles rounding Cape Horn—not to mention the reduction in wear and tear on the ship's company, machinery, and aircraft. We need a greater presence in the far Western and North Pacific areas, including the international waters of the strategically important Sea of Okhotsk, to counter Russia's and China's presence in the region.

We must include in our present analysis of events in the canal area the following:

  • A thorough and complete study of the two original handover treaties, both the civil/political and the military. This analysis must develop all our rights and obligations thereto, and our study must be done in a friendly, non-confrontational, and cooperative manner.
  • As to the construction costs of the Third Locks Project of $5.6 billion, we should consider that figure low and offer to pay for the entire project, even at double that estimate. It's worth it to us to ensure that the new locks can accommodate the Nimitz - and Ford -class carriers, not to mention civilian vessels such as Royal Caribbean's new Oasis of the Seas . If the Panamanians agree to our help, it would then be appropriate for the United States to participate in bond issues, in whole or in part, for construction costs and later for operational/maintenance costs. If done equitably and honestly, such costs could be beneficial to all interested parties and users.
  • Upon Panamanian consent, the welcome return of the U.S. military presence would be an invitation to Fourth Fleet planners at all levels to enhance its already stated missions. Concurrently the U.S. Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, Department of Justice, etc., under a similar agreement, could return to the area and reestablish the former Coast Guard station and the former Rodman Air Base with its large landing strip. The Jungle Warfare School, so prized by many Central and South American countries, could also be reestablished.
  • Other activities helpful and beneficial to the area could include a permanent and expanded presence of our hospital ships operating in both oceans as well as a major health facility at Rodman field addressing combined tropical and general health issues. Such teaching facilities could be funded—as well as those on our hospital ships—by hospitals in the countries of the region.  

The exciting plans awaiting Panama and Central and South America are directly in the center of the Fourth Fleet's operation area and are a positive extension of its mission. Most certainly these developments are visible on the horizon already. How and in what ways will the United States be proactive in understanding them? The 21st century requires jointness at all levels of planning and action. It is devoutly hoped that we will stand up and seize this historic moment!

Commander Selle is a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1949. He served 17 years in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in various assignments.





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