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Panama: Panamanian Air Force and National Navy
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Missions and Organization of the Defense Forces > Panamanian Air Force and National Navy


Before conversion of the National Guard into the FDP, the Panamanian military did not have separate service branches. Even in 1987, the six groups into which the FDP was divided (Ground Forces, Panamanian Air Force, National Navy, Police Forces, National Guard, and Military Zones) were referred to as "entities" (entidades) rather than service branches. Prior to 1983, the air force and navy were under the direct jurisdiction of the G-3 (Operations). Although not granted autonomy from the General Staff by the 1983 law, they seemed to have assumed more of a separate identity in the late 1980s.

Establishment of the Panamanian air capability came in 1964, when a Cessna 185 airplane was purchased from the United States. When Torrijos became commander in chief, he began building up the air arm, officially establishing the Panamanian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Panameña) in January 1970, in recognition of not only its military utility but also its political potential. Airplanes and later helicopters allowed Torrijos to tour outlying areas of the country, areas where he could establish a political base that could neutralize the influence of historically powerful urban groups. The first officers to enter the air force were mostly civilian pilots and thus did not really constitute an officer corps as such. Also, there was little opportunity for an independent air force identity to emerge, because pilots were regularly rotated to other positions within the National Guard, a practice that still prevailed in the FDP in the late 1980s. The most significant development affecting the air force during the Torrijos years, then, was not the development of an independent service identity, but the rapid growth of the air arm. There were only twenty-three officer pilots in 1969, but by 1978 there were sixty.

Although in 1987 the air force did not have any combat aircraft, there had been a steady buildup in other equipment, particularly helicopters. As of 1987, regular aircraft included three CASA C-212s, one DHC-3 Otter, two DHC-6 Twin Otters, one Short Skyvan, one Islander, one Boeing 727, and two Cessnas. In addition there were nine Bell and six UH helicopters and one Super Puma. Personnel and airplanes were primarily based at the Tocumen Air Base, which is collocated with Tocumen International Airport near Panama City, and at Albrook Air Force Base in the canal area.

Panama's navy (officially, the National Navy -- Marina Nacional) was formed at approximately the same time as the air force (1964). Known at that time as the Department of Marine Operations (Departamento de Operaciones Marinas), it was a small organization involved primarily in coastal patrol operations under the direction of the G-3. In the late 1980s, the navy was equipped with two large rough-water patrol craft, two utility coastal patrol boats, about five small patrol and harbor craft, and three or four former United States Navy amphibious landing ships. The two large craft were the GC10 Panquiaco and the GC11 Ligia Elena, both constructed by Vosper Thornycroft in Portsmouth, England, in 1970. Each measured about 30 meters in length and was armed with 2 20mm guns; the manning level called for 23 officers and enlisted men. The 2 utility patrol craft each measured about 19 meters in length, mounted a pair of 12.7mm machineguns, and carried a complement of 10 people. The craft had been transferred to Panama from the United States Coast Guard in the mid-1960s. Two of the smaller coastal patrol craft were twelve-meter boats transferred to Panama from the United States Navy under the Military Assistance Program in the early 1960s. Each mounted a single 12.7mm machinegun and carried a crew of 4 enlisted personnel.

Because of the age and the limited capabilities of many of their naval craft, Panamanian officials sought to purchase more modern vessels that would allow the navy to defend the canal approaches and also enhance its coastal patrol capabilities. In the 1980s Panama took delivery of two swift ships, the MN GC-201 Comandante Torrijos and MN GC-202 Presidente Porras, which were constructed in the United States.

With this continued increase in the navy's vessels, there has been a concomitant expansion in personnel. In 1983 the navy moved to new headquarters at Fort Amador at the Pacific terminus of the canal. The commanding officer in the mid-1980s was a navy commander.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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