HOEK VAN HOLLAND, Netherlands (Reuters) - British troops disembarked in the Netherlands on Wednesday en route to Norway to test NATO’s ability to move personnel and armor quickly across Europe, an exercise officers said showed London’s commitment to European security after Brexit.
In a drill with Cold War echoes, Britain is moving some 600 armored vehicles, jeeps and supply trucks and 1,200 troops by land to NATO’s northern flank over 10 days to join the alliance’s biggest exercises since the end of the Soviet Union.
“We haven’t done this ... since the Cold War,” Dutch Brigadier General Hans Damen said as 76 dark green British army vehicles arrived at dawn at the ferry port of Hoek van Holland.
Britain, which has the biggest defense budget in the EU and is rivaled for military capability only by France, is eager to show that despite its vote to leave the European Union it remains committed to Europe’s security.
“In a post-Brexit world we will still do this, we are still a member of NATO, we will still help our European partners,” said British Major Stuart Lavery.
Part of NATO’s response to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, 45,000 troops from 29 NATO countries plus non-members Sweden and Finland will mass in the Arctic for the “Trident Juncture” exercise from Oct. 25.
Several years in the planning, the exercise follows Russia’s biggest drills since the 1980s.
Britain branded Russia a “pariah state” last week when, along with the Netherlands and United States, it accused Russian military intelligence of cyber attacks on the West. Russia denies wrongdoing and blames NATO for threatening stability with a military build-up on Russia’s borders.
Admiral James Foggo, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, said on Tuesday the alliance’s preparedness was “a message to anyone who might conduct any kind of an aggressive act”.
The Arctic exercise emphasizes NATO’s traditional role defending Europe, after years when it took responsibility for the U.S.-led war in far-off Afghanistan.
Allies will train in sub-zero temperatures to see how they fare when fuel threatens to freeze, equipment jams and survival means keeping on special snow boots even inside sleeping bags.
First, the British troops will tackle more mundane obstacles en route, such as border clearances and vehicle breakdowns.
“It’s all about recording what issues arise and ensuring that we are ready for them in the future,” said British Lieutenant Harry Busby.
Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Peter Graff