USNS Observation Island is inactivated

After more than half a century of service to the United States, missile range instrumentation ship USNS Observation Island (T-AGM 23), host platform for the Air Force COBRA JUDY radar system since 1982, inactivated March 25, 2014. Shortly thereafter, USNS Grapple (T-ARS 53) began to tow ex-Observation Island on its final voyage to Beaumont, Texas. The following blog provides some of the ship’s history and perspectives from the Air Force Program Manager, Ed Hotz.

USNS Observation Island, circa 2006. (U.S. Navy photo)

USNS Observation Island, circa 2006. (U.S. Navy photo)

It has been a privilege to be associated with this program for the past 22 years. I arrived at Patrick Air Force Base in March 1992 as Major Ed Hotz to be the USAF COBRA JUDY operational program manager. Eight years later, I retired as Lt. Col. Hotz, but continued program management in my current federal civil service position. So I have some history with Observation Island.

The Air Force first started operating Advanced Range Instrumentation Ships in 1965. COBRA JUDY was the last and most advanced system built under this program and is, to this day, considered one of the most capable radar systems ever built in the world.

Since her first successful radar collection in April 1982, COBRA JUDY has completed 558 nationally sponsored missions. The information collected was critical in development of shoot-down algorithms for both tactical and strategic missile defense systems; supporting international treaty verification; providing national decision makers, from the president on down, with precise, actionable data on world events.          

The now ex-Observation Island has enjoyed international prominence in its two primary mission areas spanning more than 56 years.

Observation Island, or OBIS, started her career as the SS Empire State Mariner,  built by New York Shipbuilding, Camden N.J., and launched Aug. 15, 1953, as a “mariner” class fast cargo merchant ship. After three voyages, she entered the National Defense Reserve Fleet in November 1954.

Empire State Mariner transferred to the Navy in fall 1956, and was converted as the first naval ship to have a fully integrated Fleet Ballistic Missile System at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. She was commissioned Dec. 5, 1958, as USS Observation Island (E-AG 154).

About seven miles off Cape Canaveral, Fla., Observation Island performed the successful first launch of a Polaris test missile at sea in September 1959. Following this milestone and the subsequent firing of other Polaris missiles, the ship started to support Polaris launchings from the FBM submarines; USS George Washington (SSBN 598) being the first. On Dec. 15, 1960, Observation Island was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for its performance during those first Polaris launches.

President John F. Kennedy observed an A-2 Polaris launch from Observation Island’s deck, six days before his assassination in November 1963.

During a visit aboard USS Observation Island (EAG-154), President John F. Kennedy (center) watches a demonstration of the firing of a Polaris A-2 missile from the submarine USS Andrew Jackson (SSBN-619), at sea off the coast of Florida (Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

During a visit aboard USS Observation Island (EAG-154), President John F. Kennedy (center) watches a demonstration of the firing of a Polaris A-2 missile from the submarine USS Andrew Jackson (SSBN-619), at sea off the coast of Florida (Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The ship was assigned under the Maritime Administration from 1972 until August 18, 1977, when, upon request of USAF, she transferred to Military Sealift Command and designated as T-AGM 23.

USNS Observation Island, now Air Force funded, underwent modifications and became the host for the COBRA JUDY radar system. The COBRA JUDY radar system consisted of an S-Band phased array radar and an X-Band parabolic dish radar. The 150-ton S-Band radar, with 12,288 active independent antenna elements, could track over 100 targets simultaneously. The X-Band, 30-foot dish, was slaved to the S-Band to get high resolution radar signature data on a single target of interest.

Data collected by COBRA JUDY was required by Congress for arms control verification. COBRA JUDY is the only radar sensor capable of collecting the high-resolution metric and signature data needed for strategic missile treaty verification, as well as strategic and theater missile defense development efforts.

In support of this national mission, Observation Island averaged more than 260 days a year at sea every year for more 31 years.

In December 2013, COBRA JUDY took her final mission. OBIS departed Japan mid-January crossing the Pacific and through the Panama Canal, finally reaching her inactivation shipyard in Mobile, Ala. USNS Observation Island and the COBRA JUDY radar system may be retired, but their legacy lives on. The Air Force will continue this critical national mission with the state-of-the-art COBRA KING radar system, hosted aboard USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (T-AGM 25).

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