The Navy’s New Radar Ship Gets its Radars

So, the Navy is one step closer to fielding its newest radar ship the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen.

Raytheon just installed 240-ton X- and S-band phased array radar antennas on the ship, the ship and its huge antennas will replace the 60-year old USNS Observation Island and its 1970s-vintage Cobra Judy ballistic missile tracking radars that are fast becoming obsolete.

The Navy’s little known radar ships are straight out of a Cold War thriller or a sci-fi movie. They’re usually converted cargo ships from the 1940s and 1950s that have massive radar arrays mounted on their decks. These ships and their radars are used to track everything from ballistic missile launches to satellites in space.

(The Observation Island actually started its Navy career as a launch platform to test new missile technology. In 1960, it was the first ship to launch the Polaris ballistic missile.)

The Lorenzen however, is Navy’s the first purpose-built radar ship — they’re officially called Missile Range Instrumentation Ships — and last year the Navy refused to accept her from the builder, VT Halter Marine, after finding numerous defects on board. Since then, the company has been working to fix the problems and get the radars installed so that the ship can go out for a new round of sea trials as soon as possible. Note, the problems had nothing to do with the radars.

Click through the jump to see some great pictures of ther radar ships:

The USNS Observation Island showing its Cobra Judy radar.

The USNS Invincible, She and the Observation Island are currently the only Missile Range Instrumentation Ships in service with the Navy.

The USNS Vanguard. Here’s what the old T2 tanker looked like just before being converted to a missile tracking ship.

The USNS Range Sentinel.

The USNS Sword Knot which also served as a radar ship for the Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s.

This behemoth is the Soviet space tracking ship, Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. She was, at one time, the world’s largest communications ship. The ship was built in 1971 to detect and receive space communications.

Here’s an old U.S. Army radar ship, the USAS American Mariner.


  • Ed!

    The Range Sentinel and the Invincible look like they would fit as a Crab boat in Deadliest Catch. As for the Soviet one, you can almost feel the radiation from that thing.

    • Bill

      I chuckled at the thought that the Russians could somehow even make radar look terrifying

    • metalmarie825

      Designated the U.S.S. Mutant Sperm

  • jamesb

    The crews have to watch out for ‘mistakes’ by friendly air forces right?

    I hope they have a big ole’ RED self destruct buttom next to the captain’s seat on the bridge…..

    Lot’s of fancy stuff in them boats, eh?

  • Lance

    Interesting. Sucks being stuck in the Arctic ocean for 12 months though.

  • Max

    I hope the sailors don’t plan on going out on deck while the radars are turned on. I got radiated by a SPG-51 about 28 years ago (I think it was the USS Texas tied up next to us), and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

    • mike

      Really? Elaborate please.

      • Max

        The Virginia (CGN-38) was tied up next to a sister ship, and they were doing some testing of their fire-control radars. I think the sister ship had notified us that they were doing that, but either I didn’t get the word or ignored it, I can’t remember which. I went up on the O-4 and O-5 level to check on our equipment (SLQ-32), and that’s when I noticed that the air was kind of hot. I looked over at the other ship and saw the SPG-51 pointing right at me, and that’s when I got down below real quick! I don’t think I suffered any harm, but it sure scared me for a while.

    • blight_

      CGN-39, eh?

      • Max

        One of the Virginia’s sister ships, not sure which.

  • Yep

    Did you dissapear?

  • What’s with that color pattern on the masts/smoke stacks. Looks like it is repeated on nearly all of the US ships. At least the ones with the color images. I’m talking about the yellow, dark blue, light blue, black stripes.

  • roland

    Does it have a protection to protect itself against an attacking catamaran or fast speed missile boats and ships?

  • Museumize the USNS Observation Island with USS Midway, Hornet???
    Be a unique museum ship alone.

  • STemplar

    So much for purpose built. Sounds like it was a golden opportunity to grab an OTS vessel and put radar on it, since that’s what we’ve done before anyway. Nope, instead we have to waste cash on a two off design that failed its sea trials initially. And the DoD scratches its head over how it can possibly cope with Austerity America. Gimmee a break.

  • Elijah

    The most powerful Navy in history works in mystries ways.

  • JIM

    All MSC ships have the paint job on their stacks. They have mixed crew of Merchent Mariners and Sailors.

  • Mike

    MSC (USNS) ships have Blue, Gold, and Gray on their stacks, MARAD (usually SS or MV) have Red, White, and Blue.

  • Brett Alexander

    Looking for a Range Sentinel and Observation Island MSC Patch. Trying to put something together for my Dad who was the SIM on the OI. Thanks for any help Brett Alexander (

  • Govern ctr

    1 August 2012, the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen is docked at the Navy pier at Cape Canaveral.

    • blight_

      Any launches today?