What threats can be expected against the Panama Canal in post-Noriega years? The U.S. government could provide intelligence-gathering assistance about possible dangers, and the U.S. Navy could help to develop a Panamanian maritime force.
The 20 December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause, was a clear success for the United States. But Panama’s stability is by no means assured; defense of the Panama Canal is at least as important now as at any time since the Carter-Torrijos treaties of 1977.
These treaties called for the development of Panamanian capability to defend the Canal after U.S. turnover in the year 2000, and guaranteed the permanent right of the United States to protect the Canal against aggression.
The U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers’ assumption in February 1907 of the building of the Panama Canal led, in great part, to the Army becoming the primary government agency charged with ensuring the security and defense of the Canal. This relationship has remained in effect for more than 75 years; it may be partially responsible for Operation Just Cause.
Ever since Panama’s independence (3 November 1903), the constant in terms of law enforcement has been the presence of the U.S. military; particularly the Army. Since 1977, U.S. Army efforts to implement the treaties resulted in the development of the Panamanian Defense Forces as an increasingly capable organization, more highly trained than its predecessor, the National Guard. The U.S. Army, the service that was principally responsible for developing Panama’s ability to defend the Canal, designed a force that would have eventually included four battalions—one located at each end of the Canal and one at each border.
By Operation Just Cause’s D-Day, there were more than 5,000 Panamanian troops, not counting paramilitaries; a small air element composed of a few helicopters, transports, and fewer than 1,500 personnel; and a naval element, the smallest of the three branches, with a few patrol craft and approximately 400 personnel.
It might seem strange that a country with a 50.2-mile- long canal, about 1,500 miles of coastline, and hundreds of islands would have a relatively small, incapable maritime force. But the primary role model for Panamanian armed forces was the U.S. Army, which actively pursued the development of a strong ground force. General Manuel Noriega used this force as the foundation for his regime, and ultimately, ironically, the U.S. Army (with assistance from the Navy and Air Force) tore it down.
What would Panama have been like if the U.S. Navy had provided that role model? Would the same thing have happened?
Since the U.S. Army always enjoyed a cooperative relationship with the Panamanian military, it is not surprising that our ally’s force architecture mirrored it. Speculations aside about whether this was engineered in order to justify a continued U.S. military presence, the necessity to defend the Panama Canal was real.
And, though there may not be an obvious military threat to the Canal, this necessity still exists today. On Panama’s western border lies Costa Rica, which has no army; it was outlawed in the 1940s. A threat to the Canal from a country without a military, more than 250 miles from the Canal, does not seem likely. Panama shares its eastern border with Colombia; the countries are separated by the virtually impenetrable Darien jungle, which has prevented even the completion of the Inter-American highway. The remaining threat axis would be waterborne, from Panama’s Atlantic (northern) coast, or Pacific (southern) coast. While the country’s U.S. Army-style battalions might have been suitable to defend against amphibious landings, what Western Hemisphere country would have attempted such an assault, given the mutual interest in the Canal’s continued operation?
The Canal is an asset of immense importance to international commerce, as well as to the U.S. military. In addition to treaty requirements calling for a Panamanian defense of the Canal, there is a very real need for an organization that can fill national defense-type needs. The type of Panamanian organization created will now undoubtedly be very different from the one envisioned by previous military assistance planners. The fledgling Panamanian government of President Guillermo Endara was quick to pledge that there would never be another Panamanian military. The need for one seems remote now, if indeed it ever was necessary.
The type of threat that faces the Canal requires a force endowed with the authority to enforce the law; this does not have to be a military organization.
The Threat: The Canal could be closed in a number of ways. They can be grouped, broadly, as follows; strategic threats, regional threats, terrorism, the threat from within (a regime gaining control and holding the Canal hostage; the “Noriega scenario”), and a general dilapidation of the physical plant.
- Today’s strategic threat to the Panama Canal is vastly different from that before World War II, or in the first few decades after it. The current range of sophisticated land- and submarine-based strategic and tactical missiles, long-range bombers, and nuclear weapons would render the Canal virtually indefensible in a strategic conflict. Certainly the Canal could not be protected from such a threat by 3,000, 10,000, or even 25,000 troops.
- The regional threat appears as remote now as at any time in the Canal’s history. Regional countries depend on the Panama Canal to varying degrees; this interdependence ensures its security.
- Terrorism, the threat of choice in the 1980s (and probably the 1990s), currently offers the greatest danger to the Panama Canal. It would likely be an act of retaliation and could involve threats or hostile acts such as a rocket- propelled grenade into the side of a liquefied petroleum gas tanker in the Culebra Cut or the surreptitious placement of mines by a roll-on roll-off ship in transit.
Currently, the best defense against terrorism is a highly refined intelligence collection plan that focuses on long-term indications and warning of possible events. The United States and allies are increasingly capable in this arena, and have shown a willingness to act against perpetrators when sufficient intelligence is available. However, terrorism’s global nature makes it nearly impossible for a small country with limited resources, such as Panama, to staff a refined intelligence-collection plan adequately. In this area, the U.S. ability to detect possible threats to the Canal would be key to disrupting the terrorists’ plans at their initial stage. More immediate threats could be dealt with directly between the U.S. and Panamanian governments. If necessary, the United States could ultimately invoke the permanent right of unilateral defense of the Canal and take whatever action was needed.
- The Noriega scenario could repeat itself if U.S. planners do not adequately safeguard democracy’s future in Panama. Another threat from within could find Panama mired in an internecine conflict similar to those in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Colombia. These threats are the most insidious; they tend to develop gradually. Without decisive corrective action, such as Operation Just Cause, too often the result is a regime with interests inimical to those of the United States and to democratic institutions worldwide.
- Less dramatic, but of equal concern, is the threat to the Canal from lack of maintenance or from get-rich-quick artists who would use it for their own profit. While this is hard to prevent, the key to ensuring canal viability after U.S. withdrawal is to help all Panamanians feel that they own the Canal. During the next ten years, U.S. planners must redouble their efforts to ensure broad Panamanian participation in the Canal’s future. Otherwise, a “Canal class” could emerge, that would grow fat off the riches of nepotism and cronyism. The result would be a Canal on the verge of collapse.
The Panamanian Maritime Force: Clearly, what is needed in Panama, not only to meet the U.S. treaty commitments but also to provide an organization capable of meeting the needs of a country that so strongly depends on maritime commerce, is a maritime force. A capable maritime force would provide Panama with a means to help ensure the safety of international shipping; it would also provide Panamanians with a national service with a logical link to their greatest inheritance—the Canal.
A force structure would have to be developed; two small squadrons of patrol craft, one on each coast, might be suitable. Typical craft of the maritime force could include Swiftships, both 105-foot and 65-foot fast patrol craft, as are currently in Costa Rica’s maritime force inventory. Craft of this type would be ideally suited to a coastal patrol mission on both coasts. These maritime force patrol craft would provide a valuable service that would include:
- Search-and-rescue support to pleasure craft, fishermen, and commerce
- Drug-smuggling interdiction
- Disaster relief
- Maintenance of Canal buoys and other assets
- Regular humanitarian assistance to rural coastline villages
There is one additional benefit from a maritime force that would directly benefit Canal operations in future years. By treaty, all positions in the Panama Canal Commission are to be filled by Panamanians by the year 2000. In general, “Panamanization” of the Canal work force of 7,000 is proceeding quite well. Today, more than 85% of the permanent Canal work force is Panamanian (as opposed to less than two-thirds at the treaty signing in 1977). This is largely because of a successful Panama Canal Commission training program. But in some areas, Panamanization is not proceeding as well, and the U.S. Navy could help. It could provide expanded training opportunities for future enlisted personnel and officers in the maritime force, with billets at various training commands, A-schools, NROTC, and the Naval Academy. Skills learned would not only help build the new maritime patrol force, but also help develop essential Canal skills. For example, in the critical area of Panama Canal pilots, less than one-quarter of the approximately 240 current pilots are Panamanian. It is unrealistic to believe that the remainder of the Canal pilot force will be Panamanized by the year 2000. (Of course, alternatives could include contracting an independent pilot force.)
A proper U.S. Navy-developed maritime force could ultimately act as part of the feeder system for new Panama Canal pilots. Although the training pipeline to become an unrestricted licensed Canal pilot takes nearly ten years, seamanship learned through service in the Panamanian maritime force could provide the initial training for many new pilots. By the end of the next quarter century, Panamanians could be filling many, if not most of the piloting positions on the Canal. The benefit to the navies and merchant fleets of the world would be a highly proficient Panama Canal pilot force; one that would be capable of maintaining the high-caliber ship handling that the Panama Canal has been known for, and that would remain in place after the U.S. presence has ended.
For Panama, the benefits of a maritime force would include expanded career opportunities, a sense of ownership in the Canal’s future, an adjunct to Canal operations, and a uniformed service that the country could be proud of.
Lieutenant Peter is currently assigned to Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Center Europe under the Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, in London. He was the Panama analyst for U.S. Southern Command, Quarry Heights, Panama, from 1985 to 1989.