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Panama: Canal Defense
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Administration and Operations of the Defense Forces > Canal Defense


Some observers have held that the Panama Canal cannot be defended. Even as early as 1953, a simulated nuclear strike during exercises near Miraflores Locks demonstrated the locks' extreme vulnerability to such attack. Four years later in "Operation Caribbean," United States war gamers found the canal's defenses inadequate and asked the government of Panama for missile sites outside the Canal Zone. The Panamanians, however, feared that United States missile sites would only make their country more of a target for someone else's missiles; in addition, they did not want to give up any more territory to the United States. Years later, testimony before committees of the United States Congress during treaty hearings pointed out the vulnerability of the locks to various kinds of sabotage, such as placement of an explosive in the hydraulic system.

Vulnerability to attack or sabotage notwithstanding, the canal is mandated to be defended by the combined military efforts of Panama and the United States. With this fact as a basic assumption, the drafters of the Panama Canal treaties spelled out the modus operandi for joint defense in the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal, and projected the possibility of United States military assistance to Panama even into the twenty-first century. Among the five binational bodies established by Panama and the United States to handle all matters concerning the canal until December 31, 1999, two -- the Combined Board and the Joint Committee -- were set up to take care of defense affairs. The Combined Board consisted of an equal number of senior military representatives from each country, who consulted and cooperated on all matters dealing with defense, and planned "actions to be taken in concert for that purpose." Specifically, the board was charged with coordinating such matters as the preparation of canal defense contingency plans and the planning and execution of combined military exercises. The board was further charged with reviewing defense needs and making recommendations to the respective national governments, and assessing at five-year intervals the resources provided by the two countries for their defense commitments.

The Joint Committee, which also consisted of senior military officers and their deputies, looked after the day-to-day contacts and cooperation between the two defense forces. The United States half of the committee also dealt with United States military personnel and civilian employees and their dependents under the status-of-forces agreements. The Agreement in Implementation of Article IV of the Panama Canal Treaty spelled out the complex responsibilities and functions of the Joint Committee in detail. To accomplish its numerous and varied tasks, the committee was divided into subcommittees, each having several sections. Because neither the Combined Board nor the Joint Committee had decisionmaking or command authority, deadlocked issues had to be referred to their respective governments.

Between 1979 and 1985, at least sixteen joint military exercises involving Panamanian and United States forces took place, testing combined capabilities to defend the canal. Beginning in 1982, a series of exercises called "Kindle Liberty" were conducted. These exercises practiced the rapid movement of support troops from the United States, evaluated operational terrain, and tested joint troop coordination and performance. Generally, Kindle Liberty exercises involved Panamanian companies from Battalion 2000 and the Peace Battalion and United States forces from the 193d Infantry Brigade stationed in the canal area and from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Combined troop participation normally ranged from 3,000 to 5,000. A series of operations called "Black Fury" were also conducted between 1979 and 1981 in the canal area. Their primary purpose was to simulate defending the canal from an attack by guerrilla forces, by mobilizing troops in both Panama and the United States. Black Fury training exercises involved approximately 5,000 United States troops, including some from various state national guards.

Joint military exercises held in the mid-1980s were larger than those held previously. "Minuteman II" in 1985, for example, involved 10,000 United States troops from various national guard units in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana in addition to 5,000 members of the FDP. These exercises also dealt more with scenarios of guerrilla or low-intensity conflict. For example, in early 1986 a joint exercise called "Donoso 86" was held on a remote portion of the Atlantic coast west of the terminus of the canal. The scenario called for a large band of guerrillas operating with extensive foreign backing to have gained the support of the local population. The primary Panamanian forces involved in this exercise came from Battalion 2000, and the main United States contingent was from the 193d Infantry Brigade. In early 1987 a joint exercise called "Candela 87" was conducted on the border with Costa Rica, using various tactical units of the FDP including the Peace Battalion. The future of these exercises was uncertain in late 1987, however. After the United States Congress prohibited the use of FY88 funds for military exercises in Panama, all such joint ventures were suspended.

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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