Despite the Senate controversy over the U.S. right to reopen the Panama Canal by force, American military and technical experts here say U.S. armed forces could not successfully operate the waterway in an emergency.
"It would be ridiculous to say the military could just take over canal operations," a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Antonio Lopez said.
"Speaking for the 193rd Army Regiment and the Southern Command here, we are neither trained nor equipped to operate the canal."
To keep the canal open, he said, U.S. forces would either have to operate it themselves or have civilians working at bayonet point. "Neither would work. Only in the long run we could do it, but not without a good deal of training," he added.
Lopez's views about difficulties in operating a complex set of locks and chambers are echoed by John Farmer, leader of the Panama Canal Pilots Association which includes two Panamanians among its 210 members.
"This place would turn into a ships' graveyard if the military just took over," Farmer said.
If these assessments are accurate, the current Senate debate over the U.S. right to use armed forces to keep the canal open would appear to some observers here as an idle exercise.
The canal is now run by civilians with considrable expert knowledge. The pilots who come here as licensed sea captains take up to eight years before they can handle the biggest ships.
Crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific the pilots maneuver a vessel through six lock chambers and a narrow canyon of volcanic rock eight miles long. They cope with suction, sharp turns, tidal drops and currents which expericnced seamen say make navigating Canada's St. Lawrence Seaway and the Suez Canal look like an excursion.
Military and Canal Co. experts therefore are scoffing at the idea that even experienced Army engineers, electricians and Navy captains could rapidly reopen the canal and work it efficiently.
Under the treaty now before the Senate the United States is committed to train Panamanians to take over canal operations by the year 2000 when the canal is turned over to Panama. U.S. citizens will not be forced to leave but many will have retired and it is not clear how many Americans are willing and able to continue working on the canal.
A reservation to the treaty proposed by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) which received wide Senate support, provides for U.S. military intervention if the canal is closed for any reason including internal difficulties in Panama such as a general strike.
"We could not begin to estimate how many months it would take for the armed forces to take over. Some military jobs are compatible with this operation," Lopez said. "But we certainly have no pilots that could jump right in."
"Even experienced outside pilots would take three years of practicing to get the largest ships through," Farmer said.
The big cargo vessels make up 25 per cent of canal traffic, paying up to $40,000 in tolls per trip and they are as crucial to world trading as they are the moneymakers for the canal.
Competition is becoming stiffer, Canal Company officials point out, and despite the current efficient transit schedule, last year the canal lost 100,000 containers to railways.
Even with experts who have a dozen years of experience, accidents occasionally happen, causing costly backlogs of traffic and material damage.
A week aga a softnose (part of the lock's fendering system) was knocked over, causing $1 million damage and traffic delays that were still felt yesterday.
Several years ago when a Chinese ship misunderstood a pilot's order it hit the rocky bank and sank.
In the last four months, the Overseas Alaska, which shuttles Alaskan oil to the East Coast and is one of the biggest ships to go through the canal, has had three accidents in just four transits. In 1977, the Canal Company's liabilities exceeded $5 million.
Although 70 per cent of the Canal Company employes are Panamanians, the only serious strike came from the American canal pilots who staged a sick-out in March of 1976, closing the canal for five days.
At the Miraflores lock on the Pacific side of the canal, control house operator Robert McConaughey was standing at a 40-foot long control board as the Mount Washington U.S. cargo vessel approached.
McConaughey explained he would have to make 100 different turns of the valves before the gates would open and ship would be ready to drop 27 feet to sea level.
Although he had four years of training, in an emergency, he said, a lock operator would take a few months to learn the delicate sequence of events adequately.
"It's a treacherous current here, it's so strong it can sweep away the gates," he said. "Also you're mixing fresh and salt water and that causes a lot of turbulence."
At Gatun locks, the tunnels next to the chambers were twice flooded in recent years by experienced operators. The flood drowned out the motors which opened the water valves and the locks were out of order for several days.
Like numerous other Americans working here, McConaughey said, he would not come back to the canal even if he were needed by the U.S. military. "We have been saying all along to the government dont't give the canal away. I wouldn't return to bail out the government."
"Of course, there is nothing here we could not eventually do" said Col. Lopez. "After all, we're only talking about 1914 technology."
But the U. S. military say they have no contigency plan and Lopez says he is not aware that one is under consideration.
"After all", he said "it isn't the Army that is proposing they come back in here in an emergency."