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
Data as of December 1987