Tracking / Range Ships

Touching History: USNS Observation Island (T-AGM 23)


60 years of service

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.

Built in Russia, but after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Here is the hull leaving Vyborg Shipyard:

PS> What happened to this “white elephant”?

If I had to guess, it’s deployed “somewhere” after having underwent a refit last autumn.

MSC used to have a ship with three golf balls. Maybe not around anymore. Tracking missiles IIRC.

Pacific Tracker and Pacific Collector?

They’re still around. Based out of Portland, OR.

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The reason I know about the golf ball ship is that we encountered it at sea, in the N.Pacific, I was third mate, we were on a MSC cable ship… It would have been over 30 years ago.

It was too far away to get the name. Our captain gave them a call on the VHF, they answered but wouldn’t give any info. Our captain recognized the golf ball ship’s captain’s voice and said, “Hey Frank is that you?”. After that they quit talking to us.


Might have been the Vandenberg, or 2 others I can’t remember the names of (Range Sentinel? Observation Island? Others from this list?). MSC had 3 of them, and each would deploy progressively further down range.


Only the name Observation Island rings a bell. IIRC the captain ID’d the ship at the time as he was familiar.

My recollection of the appearance of the ship is a bit hazy, this does look like the same one.

USNS Observation Island (T-AGM-23) c.2006.

I am guessing that the VANDERBURG was a C-4. . . but am too lazy to check. . .


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The now scrapped Range Sentinel was a Victory Ship (VC2). The decommissioned Observation Island was a Mariner Class.

Wow, haven’t heard the name of that ship in quite some time. My Pop was a TMC on the Observation Island for many years. Brought it up from Canaveral to Norfolk in early 60’s to switch from Polaris to Posieden missles. His last ship I think was the “Agana” , stationed in Guam. He wrote home once when they were on the west coast test firing missles from Observation Island when the Ruskies would try to interfere recovering spent missles. After he retired, worked for a military contractor taking a few subs out of Groton testing firing control systems. He called it “Rotten Groton”.

I recall reading that the SBX had a “homeport” of sorts in Adak harbor, and that there was a fairly extensive mooring and subsea cable network installed up there to keep her tied down and powered up when she wasnt prowling around.

Interesting, regarding the OBSERVATION ISLAND. Never heard about it. . . I can’t find much about the AGANA, except for one old picture. Was it a Liberty?

Don’t know what kind of ship Agana was. The family tranferred to Guam in early 70’s, I stayed in the states. Been aboard the Observation Island a few times in my early youth. Actually one of my first license instructors (Chuck) way back when at SIU/Piney Point sailed on it, remember him saying it was good duty and liked the ship. I liked the chocolate milk machines in the galley.

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This is the only thing that I could find about the AGANA. No explanation, and the link for more info was dead. . . .48934814901_e9262e8f6b_b

I do remember him not liking the ship (Agana) too much. Don’t know if that’s it or not. May have been sold off, perhaps explaining the blue paint. The picture Kennebec put up sure looks like the ship after MANY refits. … Been over 50 years since I saw it. Googled crew list, Pop wasn’t on that list (Didn’t submit Info) but the stories the members told I can relate to. The older pictures are more accurate what I remember than this latest picture of her. Original build 1953. Has an interesting history.

Some of these old USNS ships go on and on. I was surprised when told the Waters was still operating. Good job way back when.

Now the Navy is planning to decommission the first 4 LCS ships which are less than 7 years old. Why? Here’s what the Navy says, “Those four test ships were instrumental to wringing out the crewing, the maintenance and all the other things we needed to learn from them,” Crites told reporters. “But they’re not configured like the other LCS in the fleet, and they need significant upgrades. Everything from combat [systems], to structural, you name it. They’re expensive to upgrade.” So,1.5 billion dollars down the drain for an experiment. But Austal made a lot of money which of course was the point. The Australian owners of Austal should at least send everyone in the USA a thank you email.


Would it be fair to assume you wouldn’t want to spend much time on deck when all that equipment is operating at full power?

Rarely did they operate at full on everything. ( Early LCS) without mega expenses to repair for doing so. Not confident in the later ones either. Make real ships, not star war crap for the kiddies that doesn’t work and a lot less per copy.

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