KEY WEST (CBSMiami) — The largest gathering of naval firepower in Key West, since 1974, has begun.

Ceremonies kicking off UNITAS 2012, a two-week, multi-national Navy exercise, were staged Monday morning.

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Officials at U.S. Southern Command say the exercise is designed to test how the participating naval forces perform in a variety of scenarios at sea.

Thirteen ships from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the U.S. are training together in a realistic tactical environment featuring undersea warfare, maritime interdiction operations, air defense, amphibious operations, electronic warfare and special warfare.

UNITAS — Latin for unity — is the longest-running joint naval exercise to prepare navies of participating nations in a cooperative response to various maritime situations.

The multinational maritime exercise dates back to 1959.

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The ships will depart Key West Thursday to begin sea operations in the western Caribbean through Sept. 28th.

Key West has a long Navy tradition with operations dating back to 1822. The battleship “Maine” sailed from Key West prior to her 1898 sinking in Havana that motivated the Spanish-American War.

In 1917, Navy seaplane and blimp activity began at Key West’s Trumbo Point. Naval Air Station Key West expanded to Boca Chica Key in 1943.

Although Navy vessel operations ceased in 1974, the naval air station remains a strategic air base today featuring the Navy’s latest air defense technology.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and the Florida Keys News Bureau contributed to this report.)

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