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Groton — The pops of gunfire could be heard on the Thames River Thursday morning as security forces from the Naval Submarine Base fired weapons loaded with blanks during a simulated attack on the waterfront.
The base routinely practices responding to threats, but this was the first time the drills included firing live automatic weapons instead of just pointing them.
Capt. Carl A. Lahti, the base commander, said it’s important the security forces know what their weapons feel and sound like when they are trying to hit a moving target.
“It’s important that we train our security forces to respond to changing dynamic threats and ensure that they can respond at all times,” Lahti said at the base’s emergency operations center.
The base is conducting three major security training exercises through Feb. 28 as part of Citadel Protect and Solid Curtain-Citadel Shield 2014. The drills are regularly scheduled and designed to enhance readiness to respond to threats to the base and its submarines.
Thursday’s scenario began to unfold shortly after 9 a.m. when a boat on the river, which at first was traveling normally, headed toward the submarines. A Navy patrol boat exchanged “gunfire” with the boat. Another Navy patrol boat then took its turn stopping the aggressor.
Base officials could tell whether the security forces would have hit their target had their weapons had bullets because the aggressors wore vests with firearm laser sensors that could detect that they had been “hit,” said Al Brown, the emergency management officer at the base.
A lockdown was ordered on the base while the exercise unfolded.
“You’re not always attacked one way at one time, so we react aggressively to protect our people, because protecting our people is our number one mission,” Brown said. “And so we make sure everyone is safe and the base is secure, and that the incident is the only incident going on and it’s not a diversion.”
Lahti said he could not comment on any real-life threats he has observed because the base does not discuss its security posture. But he said that while the installation is not routinely attacked by small boats, the security forces are ready to respond at all times.
Lahti said he will ask to be able to use blanks in future exercises, but it will be contingent on funding.
Next week’s drills will involve a simulation with an active shooter. Brown said the base has done similar drills, but this year’s really “hits home” because of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in September.
These drills are also being conducted at naval bases and installations throughout the continental United States.
Lahti said the base will be better prepared after the drills conclude because the security policies and procedures can be revised based on the lessons learned, and all of the Navy installations will share what they have learned with each other.