The USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship of the U.S. Navy, is in Tallinn this weekend following Siil, the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) large-scale multinational defense exercise. ERR News' Marcus Turovski and Aili Vahtla went on board Saturday to see the ship and hear from the crew.
The USS Kearsarge is the flagship of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), elements of which recently completed their participation in Siil, according to a U.S. Navy press release.
"Throughout the exercise, we were able to execute the amphibious capabilities of the ARG-MEU team as well as train to offensive and defensive tasks in a multi-domain environment against a well prepared and tactically sound opposing force," said Col. Paul Merida, commanding officer of the 22nd MEU. "The deployment of forces to support exercises like [Siil] is evidence that the 22nd MEU and the Kearsarge ARG are postured and well prepared to operate with our allies and partners to respond to any threat that comes our way."
"Our sailors and marines spent nine months training together in preparation for a routine deployment which started back in mid-March," Capt. David Guluzian, commodore of the U.S. Navy's ships participating in Siil and commander of the Kearsarge ARG and Amphibious Squadron SIX, told journalists on Saturday morning. "We have known since last year that our schedule has included [Siil], and we have been looking forward to it ever since."
According to Guluzian, the ARG-MEU team is capable of performing a wide range of expeditionary operations, including maritime security, crisis response, counter-terrorism, search and rescue, power projection, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and course amphibious raids, demonstrations and assaults.
"Estonia is a key ally in the Baltic Sea, and the Baltic Sea is crucial to NATO's collective security," he said. "We cannot just expect to be able to work together effectively and efficiently without combined training and continued exercises. Working alongside the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) during [Siil] has built trust between alliance members, improved our interoperability, and promotes a safe, secure Baltic Sea region which includes the free flow of commerce by sea."
While the U.S. has had other amphibious assault ships on the Baltic Sea, the commodore could not find any recent records of one the size of the Kearsarge in Estonia. "We proved that it can be done," he said. "And personally, I'm already looking forward to coming back."
'Phenomenal' training exercise
Asked how last week's landing exercise on the northern coast of Saaremaa went, Col. Paul Merida, commanding officer of the 22nd MEU, called it a "fantastic training exercise" for his marines.
"The Estonians that we were partnered up with, the Estonian Defense League — outstanding unit," Merida underscored. "Great opportunity to get off the ship and train. We don't get a lot of opportunities like that during deployments, so we try to take advantage of every opportunity — and this was a phenomenal opportunity, in Estonia. The exercise met all our expectations and objectives."
The colonel noted that his unit learned exactly how the Estonian Defense League looks at threats in this part of Europe, and how they prepare for them.
"And frankly, the EDF were supported by the local population in Saaremaa," he recalled. "So as the aggressor [in the exercise], we had to be very cognizant of force protection and security, not just from the Estonian Defense League that we were going up against, but the civilian population as well. We were being tracked; we were being reported on. And we had to be able to respond and protect ourselves accordingly. It was really a phenomenal training exercise in some ways that we really weren't even anticipating."
ETV's Vahur Lauri noted that Saaremaa was the site of the Germans' first maritime landing in World War I, and asked whether it was easy for units from the USS Kearsarge to land there.
"It's never easy to get our forces ashore from the sea," Merida said. "To do it effectively, we've got to find a spot where we think we can get ashore unopposed — where we think the enemy is not. Where we can get our forces ashore and build our combat power. Because that transitioning from the sea to the shore is probably the most vulnerable part of ambitious operations. It's never easy to build up combat power ashore, which is why we have to practice it as often as we can."
Captain Tom Foster, commanding officer of the USS Kearsarge, explained that the ship requires a certain amount of people to remain on board each day to conduct the ship's business.
"Right now, there are systems running on board that we need to maintain while we're in port," he explained. "If you can imagine, it's like a floating city — so there are a lot of things that have to stay online. But every day, at least two-thirds of the ship and the marines embarked get to get off the ship."
Some stay ashore even overnight, and for multiple days, he said, noting that when it's their turn to be on duty, they return to take care of the ship.
"I was walking around Tallinn last night," the commanding officer said. "It's a beautiful city, filled with people who were extremely friendly, families having dinner. It was just beautiful. Everywhere I went, it was a photograph to be taken."
When steaming at sea, the USS Kearsarge's crew ranges in size from 2,000-2,400 people, at least one third of which are on board at any time, ensuring that the ship has everything it needs and that all practical tasks are completed, including getting food aboard and having waste removed.
Fun boss on board
An average day on board looks different for everyone, depending on their job.
"If you're an engineer and you're responsible for propulsion, your day looks like manning the engineering plant," Foster explained. "Our two steam boilers take a good bit of personnel to run. If you work at the barbershop, then you wake up, you figure out the day's tasking and you're cutting hair. If you work in the laundry, you're doing that. If you work in combat systems, you're keeping the ship safe and making sure we know everything around us. On the bridge, you're navigating and driving the ship safely. If you are a marine on board, you're most likely planning for the next thing, you're keeping your gear ready to go, and you're training."
He said that days are usually long, 12 hours or more, but it's broken up into chunks interspersed with what he described as good meals.
"There's a system that the Navy uses to resupply the ships, but there's a piece of that that gives us the ability to get local foods," Foster said. Every time the Kearsarge is in port, its supply department works with local vendors to bring some local foods onboard, which then get integrated into the menu. "Our last port visit was in Norway, and we left there with some of the local fish and salmon."
To help break up the days, which can otherwise sometimes be monotonous, the crew is also provided with various entertainment options, including things like movies.
"We have someone on board who's called the 'fun boss' — they're in charge of the fun," the ship's commanding officer admitted. "They do a lot to ensure that there's game nights, time for video games, bingo — there's a multitude of things we try to do to make sure that we're breaking up the days."
Asked by ERR News' Aili Vahtla how quickly the Kearsarge would be ready to go and where it would head if they got a call that something had happened, Foster said that it would depend on what that was and where they were needed.
"But ready to go is very fast," the commanding officer said. "From this posture to everybody on board and back to sea, steaming to where we need to go would happen very quickly — inside of half a day. The ship is up and running right now; it takes us a minimal amount of time to go from along the pier posture to ready to get underway with everybody on board and immediately planning for whatever it is we're being told that we need to go do."
Asked where the Kearsarge is headed next, however, Foster declined to say.
"We're not supposed to say where we're going," he explained. "We will be in the Baltic [Sea] for quite some time now. There are a lot of interactions and NATO exercises and things that we'll be doing. We still have a lot of deployment left to go; we're only about a third of the way into our overall deployment."
Warmer than Norway
In an interview with ERR News' Marcus Turovski, Aviation Boatswain's Mate First Class Ashley Glover explained that her job, which is to launch and recover all the aircraft onboard the USS Kearsarge, is one of the most dangerous jobs on the ship.
"During [Siil], when we worked with the Estonians, we took our sailors and marines and dropped them off to do all the operations that they had to do on shore," Glover said.
Asked how the weather was during the exercise, she noted that it was much warmer in Estonia than it had been in Norway, where the ship was prior to arriving for Siil. "We'll take the little bit of a weather change," she said. "I like 60s rather than 30s."
This is Glover's first time in the region. "I'm enjoying it all," she said. "The people here were very welcoming. When we were in Norway, they were very welcoming. The culture is so different from where we are back home. I went out here last night and it's — there's so much more to see and so much to do! I like the architecture of the Old Town; it's beautiful. And the people are so friendly, and the food was good too!"
Asked whether the USS Kearsarge was able to get each of the different types of aircraft on board out during Siil, the aviation boatswain's mate said that at least one of each type, model or series was launched and participated in the exercise, and all without incident.
"Like I said, this is one of the most dangerous jobs on the flight deck, so an incident can be life or death," Glover emphasized.
Fourth ship named Kearsarge
The Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are under the command and control of Task Force 61/2.
The ARG consists of the USS Kearsarge, the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24), which is currently in the Mediterranean participating in the Turkey-hosted multinational exercise EFES, and the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44), which together with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) is currently visiting Helsinki "as a sign of partner support during the NATO application process," according to Guluzian.
Embarked commands with the Kearsarge ARG include Amphibious Squadron SIX, 22nd MEU, Fleet Surgical Team 2, Fleet Surgical Team 4, Tactical Air Control Squadron 22, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28, Assault Craft Unit 2, Assault Craft Unit 4, Naval Beach Group 2 and Beach Master Unit 2.
The fourth ship in the U.S. Navy to carry the name, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) is flagship of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
Christened in May 1992 and commissioned in October 1993, the nearly 30-year-old ship has served in multiple conflict zones, most recently in the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Middle East.
The Kearsarge is 843 feet (257 meters) long, with a displacement of 40,500 long tons with a full load. Its home port is Norfolk, Virginia.
The USS Kearsarge will remain in port in Tallinn through Monday.
Editor: Aili Vahtla