Feature | ERR News takes a tour round the USS Porter
This week, Tallinn's extensive port facilities played host to another NATO military ship, this time the United States Navy's USS Porter. ERR News was able to get a look round on board, on one of the first bright, crisp days of spring.
If you've seen the Tom Hanks movie from a few years ago, "Greyhound"– and if you haven't you should – what a destroyer looks like in terms of scale might be somewhat familiar. Considerably larger than the force protection vessels, the EML Risto and the EML Roland, at anchor nearby, off the cruise terminal where the USS Porter is berthed, yet much smaller than the USS Kearsarge, a amphibious assault ship which also put in in Tallinn last year.
However, the comparisons with the World War Two-era end about there, thanks in part to the spectacular array of state-of-the-art weaponry, tech and equipment aboard.
The scene on board the USS Porter is much more placid, too, with much of the crew's complement enjoying some down time and a run ashore, so a gaggle of journalists clambering around the place didn't cause too much disruption.
A couple of other immediate impressions, one familiar to me, the other less so: U..S Navy Lt. Blake E. Pauley, who was showing us round, set out some of the naval terminology for the unaware, though as a Brit I kept fairly quiet at that point – much of it derives from Britain's Royal Navy, he tells us, prior to the "divorce" which subsequently took place, nearly 250 years ago...
While a surface vessel, however, the Porter still employs air-lock doors; now this was something new to most of us. Negotiating them involves three or four people going in while the door behind them is slammed shut, then an internal door opened up to let us in.
The same thing is done going in the opposite direction, and the size of our group, with some people burdened with equipment, necessitated opening or closing a door ourselves at some points. We make it without major mishap; that and up and down the ladders too, though the luxury vessels that more usually dock at the cruise terminal, this certainly was not – I'm happy to say!
The Baltic Sea is somewhat of a northerly location compared with the Porter's usual haunts in recent years, having been based for several years at the U.S. naval base at Rota, in Andalusia, Spain, a connection referenced in murals in the gedunk bar (canteen) which depict various scenes from southern Spanish life.
But there is a lot more detail than that, not least the Porter's on-deck weapons systems.
As one of the ubiquitous Arleigh Burke class of destroyers, these include launchers for Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Mark 41 Vertical Launching System, a five-inch forecastle (pronounced: "fo'c'sle" in both U.S. and U.K. nautical terminology) cannon, and old school, over-the-side torpedoes, perhaps reminiscent of "Greyhound" too.
Modern-day destroyers, however, do much more than engage other vessels, submarine or on the surface: The Porter can launch ship-to-shore attacks, and also provide aerial coverage from incoming projectiles, right up to the shortest ranges and time-frames.
This is not just theoretical either – back in 2017 the ship fired dozens of Tomahawks from its location in the eastern Mediterranean, at targets in Syria, after Bashar Asad's air force launched a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun.
While the USS Porter is largely the same as the other Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in service, which number seventy-plus, plenty of smaller differences exist. For one thing, although the after-deck can accommodate a helicopter, usually a Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk, the Porter does not have a helicopter hangar as do many later-produced vessels in the same class, and there are many other subtle differences as systems and equipment are tailored to scenarios.
Of what we get to see in the control room, I cannot detail here nor show photos of, but suffice to say, NATO is in safe hands at sea.
For many of the Porter's crew, family connections have been behind a decision to join the U.S. Navy. This was certainly the case with CPO Pearce. Despite hailing from Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a long way from the sea, she tells me that her grandfather had served in the Navy in World War One; her father in Vietnam, all of which made a naval career a natural choice.
The Porter was last in the Baltic in 2022, taking part in the BALTOPS exercise, which saw both the USS Kearsarge and the USS Gunston Hall putting in in Tallinn at the time.
Welcome to Tallinn USS PORTER (DDG 78), CDR Hamilton, and crew (25% female). As the son of a US submarine captain, it was a thrill to be piped aboard, and to swap Charleston, SC stories with Citadel grad CDR Hamilton. #StrongerTogether #USinEst pic.twitter.com/WDPUR8CETk— Ambassador George P. Kent (@USAmbEstonia) March 21, 2023
Meanwhile PO Westfall, from Saginaw, Michigan, tells us that he has so far been to around 15 countries in his naval career, which is nearing the four-year mark.
"These mostly involved sailing in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, and heavily patrolling the Mediterranean," he says.
CPO Pearce meanwhile had been to Portugal, Funchal, Madeira and Rostock, Germany, among other destinations while aboard the Porter.
The crew definitely know how to be diplomatic too, in the way that perhaps only democracies' armed forces personnel really can. On asking PO Westfall why the U.S. Navy is better than the rest, including even Royal, he tells me: "I wouldn't say better, nobody's better or worse; I'd say we work well together, and anybody who knows good teamwork can have a good navy ultimately."
In any case, any naval vessel can only perform as well as its crew does. So what's the spirit like, on the Porter?
"This crew has been through a lot," PO Westfall tells me.
"it's a hard-working crew, but spirits are always high, we're always ready to respond, we're always ready for anything."
This doesn't spell all work and no play, naturally.
One of the more unexpected things Lt. Pauley shows us up on deck is the ship's bell – perhaps nothing unusual there, but it can, and has been many times, been put to use in order to carry out baptisms of babies!
This simply entails turning the bell upside down and filling it with water – it's large enough to accommodate an infant – and babies of all backgrounds and denominations, and their guardians and parents, are welcome. The inside of the bell is full of inscriptions of the names of those who have been anointed in this way in the past!
More day-to-day diversions include watching movies, which will often be playing at various locations around the vessel, CPO Pearce tells me, while card games, board games are an ever-present, and many sailors take their PlayStation to sea too!
Sadly, ships' cats are a thing of the past, but with a British Royal Navy vessel, the HMS Mersey, moored not far away, there is plenty of opportunity for some comparing of notes and socializing – whether this has any connection with the fact that the USS Porter is one of the few such vessels to have a deep fryer, for cooking, I can only speculate on!
An awareness of being part of a bigger organization even than the navy, PO Westfall says: "I'm an engineer, so no matter what we are doing it's more or less the same in that sense, but I know we like to patrol around and get to meet with many and varied NATO allies, just to further increase our strength and our relationships."
As to my question about her own navy career going forward, CPO Pearce says: "My ambitions right now are just to grow as a person and to be there for my sailors, and whatever comes of that, is whatever comes of that, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing."
The ship's commander, Cdr. Joe Hamilton, drops by to say hello, before an announcement comes down the pipe that the Estonian Defense Minister, Hanno Pevkur, is arriving on board (along with, as it turns out, the head of state). While this certainly doesn't signal that it's time to go, it provides a book-end to a thoroughly epic tour and meet-up.
Great visit aboard the USS Porter today in Tallinn. Thank you CDR Hamilton for hosting and welcoming President @AlarKaris and DefMin @HPevkur. The consistently shows stellar commitment to allied security in Estonia and the Baltic region. #WeAreNATO #StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/1Jrx15s6rb— MoD Estonia (@MoD_Estonia) March 22, 2023
With that in mind, does CPO Pearce have any final message, both for the people of Estonia and our English-language readers, wherever they are from?
"Thank you so much for the hospitality, that has been shown to us and our sailors while we've been here in Estonia. It means a lot to be able to visit countries like these and to experience the history and the culture, which is not necessarily something that a lot of our sailors get the opportunity to experience, so, just thankyou for the hospitality."
Editor's note: The USS Porter, DDG-78, is named after two nineteenth century high-ranking naval officers, who were also father and son. Commodore David Porter (1780-1843) was an officer during the War of 1812 and also the Barbary wars. HIs son, Admiral David Dixon Porter (1813-1891), was the adoptive brother of David G. Farragut, the most well-known U.S. Navy commander of the Civil War era.
With thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn for facilitating the visit.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte