U.S., Foreign Judge Advocates Participate in PANAMAX 2012

By Lt. Adam Brandon, Naval Air Station Jacksonville

Cmdr. Wagner Soria, Lt. Jessica Pyle, Legalman 1st Class Teresa McKeever, U.S. Air Force Capt. Sosa Thomas, Lt. Brad Davis, and Lt. Cmdr. Pontony legal problem-solving at PANAMAX 2012, a USSOUTHCOM-sponsored exercise that focuses on ensuring the defense of the Panama Canal.

For two weeks in August, military forces from the United States and 16 partner nations participated in PANAMAX 2012, a USSOUTHCOM-sponsored exercise that simulated defending the Panama Canal from attacks by a fictional anti-capitalist, extremist organization.  The exercise scenario incorporated a variety of sea, air, land, and cyber attacks.  Staging the defense of the Panama Canal, the multi-national forces successfully ensured the neutrality of the Panama Canal as well as the free flow of commerce through it.

PANAMAX is an annual exercise that began in 2003 with the United States and two partner nations.  Over the years, many other South and Central American countries have joined the exercise to test their interoperability as a multinational force.  This year, the Multi-National Forces South (MNFS) Joint Task Force was commanded by Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command / U.S. 4th Fleet.  Also, for the first time, Brazil led the maritime forces component, and Colombia led the land forces component.  In all, representatives took part from Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States.

The exercise took place at numerous military bases throughout the United States with Naval Station Mayport serving as the host for the MNFS command and control center.  In coordination with Cmdr. Jon Peppetti, the MNFS Staff Judge Advocate, several judge advocates from Region Legal Service Office Southeast (RLSO SE) and Naval Legal Service Southeast (NLSO SE) participated in the exercise as watchstanders for MNFS.

Standing watch in the operations center, these judge advocates collaborated with over 1,000 participating personnel via an online system of chat boxes, e-mail, and a shared web portal.  The primary job of the judge advocates on the watch floor was to maintain situational awareness, update the matrix for the rules of engagement, spot key legal issues, and advise the commanders directing the exercise.

This opportunity gave many junior judge advocates their first experience with operational law in a fast-paced environment.  Lt. Nancy Pham described the watch floor as “quite intense even though the exercise was simulated.”  She observed, “It was fascinating to see how operational judge advocates fit into the overall mission of the Navy.”

During the exercise, U.S. judge advocates worked closely with foreign judge advocates, many of whom did not speak English.  As Lt. Aubrey Charpentier explained, “While the language barrier was an issue, each country had different pieces to the puzzle.  We had to be aware of the legal limitations and capabilities of each country’s military forces.  It would have been impossible to come together as a team without the insights of the foreign judge advocates.”

Reflecting on the exercise, Lt. Jeff Marden said, “PANAMAX demonstrated how the line community functions in an operational setting.  As with most junior officers, my operational law knowledge was based upon one week of training at Naval Justice School, but PANAMAX allowed me to place that knowledge into context and observe it in practice.”

Appreciating the personal value of early operational law experience, Lt. j.g. Tim Ceder said, “It was a great experience to work with so many high-level commanders.  PANAMAX 2012 gave me the confidence to assert my legal opinions to line officers senior to me.”

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