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?

  • Ryan Everett Cheesman

    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.

    • Achor Clanker

      The colored stripes designate the ship as a USNS ship or Naval Reserve ship and not an active duty combatant. The USNS and Reserve ships have primarily civilian crews, very few if any active duty Navy sailors.

    • James

      It means it is a Military Sealift Command ship. Blue and Gold stripes mean part civilian and part military crew.

  • roland

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

    • joe

      No. It’s not supposed to go anywhere hostile and that funnel dressing is the equivalent of a medic’s armband - “I’m not an armed combatant please don’t shoot at me”.

      As noted, these are testing range platforms, and have no more business being armed than the army’s OPFOR “I’m-a-russian-tank-honest” lookalike vismods.

    • Riceball

      Yeah it does, it’s called their radars. With the number and size of their radars they could simply turn them to face any incoming attackers and fry them. Of course that’s probably against the Geneva Convention but it’ should be theoretically possible to do so, assuming that they could turn their radar antennas downwards enough. But as others have said, these things aren’t intended to be surface combatants and are not deployed anywhere near harm’s way.

      • blight_

        If the radars can kill birds, they can conceivably do interesting things to human flesh. It might work the farther out to the horizon the target is…

        • Riceball

          That’s what I was thinking.

    • roland

      This things will support our navy and for sure the enemy or some rogue nations already knows that. Are we sure this will not become a target of interest with the enemy if they become an enemy? Think it over before its over.

    • roland

      Place 8 multiple anti-ship missiles, high powered machine gun and torpedo anti-ship missile launchers on each sides for protection against an attacking missile boats. Will never know when this will happen until it happens. Better be prepared.

  • Stephen N Russell

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

    • blight_


      • joe

        I’m not sure if there is a museum Radar ship, and if you’re going to have one, Observation Island is a good one - the ship has at least one unit award to its name.

        That said, if there’s a desire to cut down the number of museum ships, I’d guess USNS ones are easy to bybpass.

        • blight_

          It got the award as part of testing the Poseidon FBM. Shrug.

          In the end, it all depends on who has the money to upkeep. Most kids would probably want to check out an aircraft carrier (Midway in San Diego, Hornet in the bay area) over a humble instrumentation vessel.

          I honestly don’t think the navy cares whether or not a ship becomes a museum piece, but it’s very much demand-oriented. Carriers make the best museum pieces, but they cost a bundle.

          After the LA’s begin to retire, I wonder if they will turn into museum pieces too…

  • 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.

    • joe

      Sounds about right. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe there was something specific about the radar that demanded a special design, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it might be…

      • STemplar

        A Maersk triple E on costs about $190 million, and Im pretty sure on a 400m cargo vessel you could find room for radar….and a football field. We keep building these purpose designed ships to do some pretty rudimentary stuff that could be handled for a lot less by the different options proposed on cargo ships. We just gotta have everything special and unique and then generals and admirals line up to whine in front of Congress how they can’t possibly save any money. I call BS.

      • Mastro

        Yeah- I’ll bet a paycheck on some congressman’s district versus “no surplus shipping available”

        Don’t we have fleet of ships in Suisan Bay, Philadelphia reserve fleets that could have a few radars welded onto them?

        • blight_

          Aren’t a lot of those ships long in the tooth? More interestingly, with the recession, haven’t any shipping companies socked away boats due to costs? Isn’t that how we got the Algols for cheap?

          • STemplar

            They had high operating costs, so sort of I guess.

            Maersk’s offering to sea basing about mid way down the page. I think it raises a lot of questions in regards to some of the ship procurement decisions we have made and are making. I can’t think of many good reasons why we have to have the San Antonio class and couldn’t use their option. The same goes for a number of vessels I would think.

          • STemplar


  • 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 (

    • STAN

      Try looking for an OI group on facebook…The USNS Arnold has a group, someone mayhave the patch you want..

  • Govern ctr

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

    • blight_

      Any launches today?