USNS Observation Island (T-AGM-23)

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USNS Observation Island
Career (US)
Awarded: June 1, 1951
Builder: New York Shipbuilding Corporation[1]
Yard number: 494[1]
Laid down: September 15, 1952
Launched: August 15, 1953
Acquired: February 24, 1954
Commissioned: December 15, 1958
Decommissioned: January 1, 1972
In service: July 1, 1977
Homeport: None
Status: In service 2012 with the Military Sealift Command [2]
General characteristics
Class & type: AMG 53
Displacement: approx. 17,015 tons (17,288 t)
Length: 564 ft (172 m)
Beam: 76 ft (23 m)
Draught: 28.58333 ft (8.71220 m)
Installed power: Two boilers; 1 GE turbine; 19,250 hp (14.36 MW)
Propulsion: Single screw
Speed: 20 knots (37 km/h)
Capacity: Officers: 92
Enlisted: 465
Complement: 65 civilians
20 Navy personnel
35 technicians
Sensors and
processing systems:
AN/SPQ-11 Cobra Judy
Notes: MARAD C4-S-1 A[1]

USNS Observation Island (T-AGM-23), also known as ex-MA-28, ex-YAG-57, ex-E-AG-154, Empire State Mariner, is the historic naval vessel that in 1969 launched the first Poseidon Fleet Ballistic Missile ever successfully deployed from a vessel at sea, earning the ship and crew the Meritorious Unit Commendation.[3][4] The ship is currently one of two Missile Range Instrumentation Ships operated by the Military Sealift Command.[5] One of the radars it carries is the AN/SPQ-11 Cobra Judy Passive Electronically Scanned Array radar.

USNS Observation Island operates worldwide, monitoring compliance with strategic arms treaties and supporting U.S. military weapons test programs. Observation Island carries an Air Force shipborne phased-array radar system for collecting data on missile tests. The ship is operated by Military Sealift Command for the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick Air Force Base.[6]

USNS Observation Island was built as a "Mariner" class merchant ship, launched in August, 1953, and was acquired by the Navy in September 1956 for use as a fleet ballistic missile test ship. The vessel was converted at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and kept in reserve as a Maritime Administration asset from 1972 until 1977. In August 1977, Observation Island was reacquired by the U.S. Navy and transferred to Military Sealift Command, where it was reclassified as T-AGM 23, a missile range instrumentation ship.[6]


USNS Observation Island was converted to the first naval ship that had a fully integrated Fleet Ballistic Missile System. No major hull or engineering changes were made to the ship during this conversion. Because of the refit, the ship underwent a shakedown cruise at Guantanamo Bay.[7]

The first at-sea launch of the A-1 Polaris missile was from the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) on July 20, 1960, and was monitored by the Observation Island. The ship was also present for initial tests of the A-2 and A-3 variants of Polaris. It was aboard Observation Island that President John F. Kennedy, on November 16, 1963, witnessed an A-3 Polaris launch, six days before his assassination.[7][8] While aboard Observation Island, President Kennedy gave his final speech from a U.S. Navy vessel:

I want to express for all of us our very warm appreciation to you for providing this demonstration of Naval Power today and also to express my thanks to your very dedicated service over a good many months and years. Control of the seas, the maintenance of the flag of the United States in its traditional position on the ocean is vital to the security of the United States. To do that, of course, we have to maintain the most advanced weapons system in the world. This ship contributed direct to that maintenance and I want to express our appreciation to all of you.

In 1983, the first ever (USA) naval installation of a phased-array radar system was completed and tested on the USNS Observation Island. Weeks of sea trials were spent testing and perfecting the software required for a nonstable platform.

Meritorious Unit Commendation[edit]

While the Observation Island was stationed at Port Canaveral, adjacent to NASA at Cape Kennedy, Florida, in the very week Apollo 11 was launched from the Cape, the ship also made history by beginning its mission to achieve "the first successful at-sea firing of the POSEIDON Fleet Ballistic Missile." (Admiral E.R. Zumwalt Jr., 1971).[3][4] The commendation was earned by the 1969 crew and was awarded in 1971 while the ship was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for various range survey duties. In later 71 she was decommissioned for awhile, though later she reappeared for other missions as a USNS ship (see above). The success of the mission earned the ship and crew the Meritorious Unit Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy. As taken directly from the Commendation letter sent to crewman SD2 Rolando S. Caparas, (along with cover letter from Commanding Officer, Captain W.C. Dotson), Admiral Zumwalt wrote of the Commendation:

The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in representing the MERITORIOUS UNIT COMMENDATION to USS OBSERVATION ISLAND (AG-154) for service as set forth in the following Citation: For meritorious service from 1 July to 16 December 1969 during at-sea operations in connection with the first successful at-sea firing of the POSEIDON Fleet Ballistic Missile. Throughout this period, the officers and men of USS OBSERVATION ISLAND carried out the required afloat tests and conducted complex and demanding operations in the essential support functions of POSEIDON flight testing, with exceptional competence and resourcefulness. The timely and highly successful conclusion of the at-sea test phase was a significant achievement expediting the availability to the United Sates of the most advanced and potent deterrent system. The teamwork and dedication to duty displayed by the officers and men of USS OBSERVATION ISLAND reflected credit upon themselves and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

The Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation can be awarded to a unit that has performed service of a character comparable to that which would merit a Bronze Star in a combat situation, or an equivalent award in a non-combat situation to an individual. Photocopies of both letters are inserted below.

Alt text
1971 Meritorious Unit Commendation cover letter from Commanding Officer Captain W.C. Dotson to crewman D2 Rolando S. Caparas of the USS Observation Island
Alt text
1971 Meritorious Unit Commendation letter from Admiral E.R. Zumwalt as attachment to crewman D2 Rolando S. Caparas of the USS Observation Island


In 2008, the USNS Observation Island was part of the U.S. Government program attempting to use an anti-missile missile to shoot down satellites by tracking the satellite before and after the missile launch.[9]


USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (T-AGM-25)[10] was delivered in January 2012 and is slated to replace USNS Observation Island when the latter is removed from service on 1 April 2014 (per NAVADMIN 175/13) and scrapped.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Ships Built to MARAD Designs". Retrieved 2 March 2012. 
  2. ^ "USNS OBSERVATION ISLAND (T-AGM 23)". Naval Vessel Register. Retrieved 2 March 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Admiral E.R. Zumwalt Jr., (1971) "Letter: Secretary of the Navy presentation of the Meritorious Unit Commendation"
  4. ^ a b Captain W.C. Dotson, (1971), "Letter to SD2 Rolando S. Caparas, USN: Meritorious Unit Commendation"
  5. ^ "USNS OBSERVATION ISLAND (T-AGM 23)". U.S Navy Military Sealift Command. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  6. ^ a b "Military Sealift Command--Fact Sheet". U.S Navy Military Sealift Command. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  7. ^ a b "Observation Island". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Retrieved January 18, 2011. 
  8. ^ Lundquist, Edward (September 2006). "Naval Ship Was Instrumental in Developing Polaris, Poseidon Missiles". Sea Classics. Retrieved January 18, 2011. 
  9. ^ McIntyre, Jamie (February 15, 2008). "Attempt to shoot down spy satellite to cost up to $60 million". Retrieved January 18, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Range Instrumentation Ship Photo Index". Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  11. ^ "Navy Accepts Delivery of USNS Howard O. Lorenzen". United States Navy. 12 January 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.

External links[edit]