NORTHWOOD, England -- The military forces of 10 Western nations embarked on a naval exercise today involving 150 ships and 35,000 troops in a major test of NATO's crucial northern defenses.
Ships and aircraft from the United States, Britain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, West Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal were taking part in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's biggest amphibious maneuvers in eight years, codenamed Northern Wedding 86.
In addition, France, which is not part of NATO's military structure, was joining the exercise with two destroyers, three submarines and marine aircraft.
The exercise ranging from the northern Atlantic to the Baltic Sea culminates with a landing of 27,000 troops in southern Norway in mid-September.
The overall objective is to practice 'the reinforcement of northern Europe in times of rising tension and war,' said Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, the British officer commanding the maneuvers.
The forces will be divided into two opposing camps, 'blue' forces playing their normal NATO role and a smaller team of 'orange' forces masquerading as the enemy.
NATO officers are all too aware there will also be a third group playing an uninvited role, with Soviet ships and aircraft keeping a close watch on the proceedings. NATO believes Soviet nuclear submarines have been shadowing trans-Atlantic convoys maneuvering in readiness for the exercise.
Moscow is expected to deploy up to eight surveillance ships bristling with electronic equipment to eavesdrop on the maneuvers.
High-technology communications are a vital element in modern warfare, and for the first time in a big exercise NATO will be using OPCON, a computerized ship-to-shore communications network.
Nowadays this means the admiral commanding the exercise will not even be in sight of the sea. The nerve-center for the operation is a pressurized underground bunker hidden in the sedate suburb of Northwood on the outskirts of London.
A key objective of Northern Wedding 86 is to practice new techniques and sophisticated new military equipment as well as the West's 'reaction capability' and landing techniques, Hunt said.
Many NATO vessels are equipped with new computer software, and there are new aircraft communications systems to test, he said, declining to go into further detail.