By Lt. j.g. Michael Wester, Region Legal Service Office Midwest
Join the Navy and see the world? Eighteen months into his first tour at Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) Midwest, first tour judge advocate Lt. Adam Smith had seen more “amber waves of grain” than “blue of the mighty deep.” This past summer, however, he got the chance to operate in the country of New Centralia, where he advised the land component of a United Nations (U.N.)-sponsored multi-national force. The mission: to conduct operations against the Brigada de los Mártires de la Liberación, a violent extremist organization dedicated to the destruction of the Panama Canal. In case you were wondering where New Centralia is or why you hadn’t heard about a terrorist attack near the Panama Canal, don’t worry—it’s not because you haven’t been keeping up with the news.
PANAMAX is an annual two-week exercise that simulates an attack on the Panama Canal by a fictitious violent extremist organization operating throughout the Caribbean. Held this year at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, the exercise presumes that the U.N. Security Council has authorized the establishment of a multi-national force (MNF-S) led by the United States with support of partner nations from the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. U.S. Army South (ARSOUTH) and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO) alternate as the lead commands for the exercise. For this year’s exercise, ARSOUTH was the lead component, hosting the MNF-S, which was referred to as the Combined Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC). While in reality the CFLCC was also housed at Fort Sam Houston, for purposes of the exercise, it operated in the fictitious country of New Centralia, located between Costa Rica and Panama.
Judge advocates from the Navy and Army were closely involved in all aspects of this year’s PANAMAX. Each of the component commanders (Land, Air, Maritime and Special Forces) was guided by a legal team that included judge advocates specializing in international and operational law. JAGs advised commanders on a variety of legal issues and worked with the various working groups to address potential legal concerns in advance of operations.
Assigned as an international law attorney for the CFLCC, Smith worked on a legal team with attorneys from the Guatemalan and Chilean Armies to advise the two-star Brazilian Army General who commanded the CFLCC and assist with logistics and operational planning.
The exercise operated on a compressed timeline. Matters that would ordinarily require weeks or months of attention were resolved in a matter of days. Legal issues that arose at the CFLCC included use of deadly force, deliberate targeting protocols, and detainee operations. Attorneys applied and interpreted various articles and protocols of the Geneva Conventions, the respective countries’ rules of engagement as well as operational orders from the MNF-S.
Adding a wrinkle to the exercise was the fact that not all participants spoke English. While the MNF-S staff consisted primarily of U.S. personnel, at the CFLCC level the majority of participants were foreign nationals for whom English was not a first language. To overcome this hurdle, translators provided instant translation. Still, briefings and meetings were often conducted in Spanish, Portuguese and English, sometimes in combination.
Needless to say, PANAMAX provided an unforgettable experience for Smith.
“It was just great across the board,” said Smith. “I got the chance to work operational law issues in a context that I just wouldn’t get to see in a RLSO, and I got a taste of what working in an operational environment might be like. Thinking about a military operation on this scale and working with members from partner nations gave me a better appreciation for what it really means to serve in the armed forces.”
This opportunity also provided invaluable professional experience for Smith, who is approaching the completion of his second year in the JAG Corps.
“Briefing commanders, collaborating with other JAGs, and helping working groups fold legal issues into their planning process really gave me a chance to hone these skills and understand how important being clear, accurate and concise really is,” said Smith. “I would absolutely recommend other JAGs take advantage of an opportunity like this.”