What does the Navy do when it needs to know for sure that a new weapon system or electronic countermeasure works, not just under stringent lab-like settings or at a land based range, but in its intended operating environment? They put it to sea on a giant remote controlled Destroyer and throw live missiles at it.
The USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964) is a Spruance Class Destroyer that was originally commissioned in 1976 and served till its decommissioning in 2003, between which it took part in multiple conflicts around the globe. Among many historical acts, the Foster was the first ship to fire Tomahawk missiles during Operation Desert Storm.
Today, this 529-foot-long, 8,000-ton-displacement steel beast has been given a second, albeit more precarious life as the Navy's Self Defense Test Ship. Since 2005, the re-designated Paul F. Foster (EDD-964) optionally manned full-scale test ship has been on the near-receiving end of all types of attacks and has been the Navy's one stop shop for testing everything from laser defense systems to alternative fuels.
Up until 2005, the USS Decatur was the Navy's geriatric Self Defense Test Ship. At the time, this ship was close to 50 years old and ran on very dated technology, which hampered its ability to be used for anything but as a rudimentary target and weapons test platform surrogate. The much more modern Paul F. Foster's Spruance Class hull was adopted for the Navy's Ticonderoga class Cruisers, a type that remains a key component in the Navy's surface warfare fleet. Additionally, the Foster's basic structural configuration is also similar to the Navy's modern Arleigh Burke Class destroyers and her gas turbine engines are of the same family of those deployed on both ships. All these features give her a certain level of physical commonality with the Navy's existing surface combatant fleet and allows the ship to be used for a much broader menu of testing options than its predecessor.
Systems mounted on the Navy's previous Self Defense Test Ship, the USS Decatur:
Although her configuration changes depending on NAVSEA's testing goals, the Paul F. Foster has a full array of launch systems, identical to those that you would find on any operational US Navy ship. These includes a Mk 49 Guided Missile Launching System for the super-nimble RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, a Mk 29 eight-celled box launcher for the Sea Sparrow missile (RIM-7 or RIM-162 ESSM capable) like those found on US Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Helicopter Docks, a Phalanx Close In Weapon System, and a 61 cell Mark 41 vertical launch system, capable of firing a large variety of weapons including Standard anti-air missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Physical countermeasures are also installed on the ship, like the chaff and flare dispensers, such as the BAE Systems Mark 36 Super Rapid Blooming Off-board Chaff system. Electronic countermeasures can also be fitted to simulate 'soft kill' effects on incoming targets and to test for complications between systems deployed with the fleet, such as the AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare Suite, and kinetic defensive systems (missiles or CIWS) and their targeting support sensors. Other test equipment and weapons systems can be temporarily deployed on the Foster's foredeck or on her stern for missions that don't require traditional Navy missile launch or defensive systems.
During her light refit for serving as the Navy's Self Defense Test Ship, the Paul F. Foster was fitted with remote control systems for both maneuvering and propulsion, allowing the Destroyer to be operated totally unmanned during tests. Based at Port Hueneme, CA, the ship sails to the Pacific Missile Test Range near the Channel Islands, where her navigational control is handed over to Naval Air Systems Command Weapons Division at NAS Point Mugu, located next to Port Hueneme, about an hour north of Los Angeles. Her weapons systems and test gear are run remotely from Port Hueneme's Surface Warfare Engineering Facility. Once on the sanitized range and unmanned, without any human life around to be lost due to a malfunctioning weapon system or errant missile, weapons can fly free and the ship can be maneuvered hard during crucial live-fire developmental tests.
Landing aboard the Navy's Self Defense Test Ship:
So how does this ship test things like the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile against marauding cruise missiles, under real-world conditions, while not getting sunk or terribly damaged in the process? A custom-configured barge is towed about 150 feet behind the vacated vessel during live-fire testing involving incoming missiles. 150 feet may sound like a lot of space, but when you compare it to the length of the ship itself, it is not a very short distance.
These barges can have containers stacked on them, or other solid structures erected on their deck, to simulate a ship's super-structure or any other profile. Also, their radar signature can be augmented by attaching radar reflecting lenses and their infrared signature can be enhanced or masked depending on the nature of the test. Also, target banners and other 'permeable' targets can be fixed to the barge for less complex developmental missions.
In addition to the barge, the missile being fired at the ship does not usually pack a live warhead, so even if it hit the ship instead of the barge, the damage would be limited to the kinetic impact of the missile alone. This actually happened to the USS Chancellorsville during a attack simulation training exercise in the same area. The drone did not avoid the ship at the last minute as planned and the ship's close in weapon systems were on safe at the time. The end result was a hole punched it the Ticonderoga Class cruiser's superstructure.
To better simulate a real-world attack and response, a defensive system's software can be manipulated for the test to assume the target is being fired directly at the ship instead of the barge, although this is probably rarely needed seeing as how close the barge is behind the Foster. In real life, even a detonation of a live cruise missile at 150 feet behind a destroyer or cruiser could do serious damage, and may result in a mission-kill via knocking out key systems and sensors.
Because the ship is a full sized test platform, and retains its powerful turbine engines, increasingly complex tests can be carried out for installed weapons and sensors, such as executing defensive engagements while maneuvering hard and at high speed, or responding to multiple attacks at multiple vectors, under real-world conditions. Once again, all this takes place while the ship is totally unmanned, with its navigation and weapon systems being operated remotely via data-link.
In addition to testing defensive weapons such as the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, the ship has been used to develop the Maritime Laser Demonstrator. Successful tests have occurred against small boats, disabling them by 'drilling' through their critical components and setting them ablaze. With solid state lasers rapidly gaining in output power, range and reliability, laser systems are clearly the future of close in weapon systems as they offer 'speed of light' precision and virtually unlimited ammunition. In fact, the Navy's first CIWS laser has been operationally deployed for the first time just this month.
Developing weaponry is not this giant remote controlled ship's only mission. The Paul F. Foster has also been used to prove the operational potential of running modern surface combatants on a 50-50 blend of biofuel (hydro-processed algal oil according to the Navy) and F-76 petroleum. Since the ship shares the same General Electric LM2500 gas turbines as current Cruisers and Destroyers in the fleet, it was the ideal low-risk test candidate for these 'green' tests. Having proved successful, this fuel blend was expanded to some components of the US Navy surface fleet during training exercises in recent years years.
Centered around the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, a "Great Green Fleet" as the Navy terms it, aims to be a showcase of energy conservation and fossil fuel independence by 2016. It will put in place a cocktail of energy saving measures and consume only environmentally friendly, renewable fuels. By the start of the coming decade, these same 'green' operational standards will become widespread across the entire Navy, including naval and marine aviation.
As for the Foster's future, the world's largest 'drone' will be seen prowling the waters off southern California for many years to come. It may be ironic, but this old second-hand destroyer is actually the quiet and humble forebearer to the future of Naval surface combat.
In a world where advanced anti-ship missiles have proliferated even to non-state actors and anti-ship ballistic missiles are now becoming a credible threat, being able to keep forward deployed vessels afloat during a time of combat will be as important as the offensive capabilities carried by those ships. Additionally, for many missions, America's surface combatants will have to operate close enough to their targets to even use their offensive capability at all. This puts them at increasingly greater risk of attack and in need of more robust defenses. The unique capabilities of the Paul F. Foster proves that these defensive systems actually work, allowing commanders to accept more risks during combat.
Like many other of America's elaborate military test and development capabilities, the Foster's one-of-a-kind, full-scale unmanned weapons test abilities are just another reason why the US Navy continues to dominate the seas around the globe. Modern naval warfare is not about how many weapons your have, but is more about seeing that those that you do have will actually work as planned when needed. The Paul F. Foster offers a bit of insurance to the U.S. Navy that when it actually has to pull a trigger in defense of one of its ships, the weapons fired will hit their intended target time and time again.
A recent devastating test of a Norwegian cruise missile:
Pictures via USN
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com