In 1987, an Iraqi jet fighter fired two Exocet missiles at the guided missile frigate USS Stark, damaging the vessel, killing 37 crewmen and injuring 21. The Stark never fired defensive weapons during the incident or even detected the incoming missiles on radar. Clearly, the U.S. Navy — arguably the most sophisticated and best-equipped force of its kind on the planet — had a problem.
Modern vessels such as the Stark boast elaborate and expensive defensive systems intended to protect them against just this kind of attack, but years of relative peacetime meant that few of those systems had ever been tested under live-fire conditions. And there’s a good reason for that: Human beings have a strong aversion to having missiles fired at them. Offensive systems merely require targets to shoot at in order to prove their accuracy and effectiveness, while defensive systems require powerful ballistic objects to be fired at them and, presumably, their human operators.
The Navy and its Operational Test and Evaluation Force had already recognized this vulnerability and begun work on a solution a year prior to the Stark incident. The result was the largest remote-controlled oceangoing vessel ever to be put in operation. That vehicle, the Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS), was formerly the 6,750-ton guided missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-31), which was in active service from 1956 to 1983. After being decommissioned, the ex-Decatur was modified and then operated as the first SDTS for 10 years.
In 2006, a second SDTS, the 8,040-ton Spruance-class destroyer USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964), originally commissioned in 1972, replaced the ex-Decatur to become the current SDTS, which operates out of the Naval Sea Systems Command at Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme Division in Oxnard, California. There, Geek recently took a tour of the ship in port under the guidance of two naval engineers who work at the facility, Lieutenant Robert Smith and Lieutenant Yevtte Davis.
“This thing is like a Frankenstein now — there are so many systems that are installed on here that it kind of doesn’t look like the original ship anymore,” says Lt. Smith, an expert on the Navy’s Aegis integrated ship combat weapon system, as we approached the docked SDTS. (Smith’s interest in big-kid toys extends beyond the world’s biggest remote control ship — he drives a 2012 45th anniversary edition Camaro.)
To our civilian eyes, the 563-foot SDTS initially looks like an ordinary destroyer, but as we study it more closely under the guidance of Lt. Smith and Lt. Davis, we notice areas where newer materials and technologies are grafted onto its 35-year-old superstructure. They include the AN/SLQ-32A(V)3 Electronic Warfare System; the Close-In Weapons System (CIWS; pronounced “Sea-whiz”), which looks a bit like R2-D2; the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) System, which is a blocky missile launcher shaped like the barrel of a Colt .45 mounted on a gimbal; and the MK 57 12 NATO Seasparrow Surface Missile System with Evolved Seasparrow Missile (ESSM). The SDTS recently tested a new Laser Weapon System (LAWS) that was the first of its type to shoot down an unarmed drone.
As engineers by trade, Lt. Smith and Lt. Davis use their technical knowledge to help develop new naval weapon systems, test new capabilities, analyze trending faults of current systems aboard deployed ships, and train the deployed sailors who use the systems. They’re responsible for helping sort out the problems with installed weapon systems, ensuring that they don’t crop up again — whether that means fixing the problem, fixing the manual or making sure that systems operate with as little chance as possible for failure. Most systems have been checked to 95% by the time they hit the SDTS.
In order to determine the ultimate operating effectiveness of the ship’s defensive systems, the SDTS launches out of its port and heads for a predetermined operational area, normally the Point Mugu range off San Nicolas Island, California. Usually, there are five or six unmanned tests per year, and about 35 days a year for the ship to be deployed (often manned).
Inside the vessel, there are facilities for a full crew to drive the ship out of port and prepare it for remote operation. In addition to its updated weapon and radar systems, the aft end of the SDTS has been equipped with an enlarged flight deck for landing helicopters. Once the ship reaches its operating vicinity, the bulk of the crew departs onto a number of support craft, leaving only a handful of crewmembers to prepare the ship for remote-control operation. They engage the remote system and leave via helicopter from the pad at the stern. The ship is then operated by remote from a large cubical building, the Surface Warfare Engineering Facility (SWEF), located near the SDTS’s dock at Port Hueneme. The SWEF is designed much like the command center of a military vessel and contains a replica “bridge” that duplicates all of the operating stations on the SDTS.
Walking through the SDTS, we step through bulkhead hatchways designed to keep up to a foot of water out of any adjacent sections and climb up stairways so steep that we’re in constant danger of cracking our skulls on the deck above. The atmosphere is hot, damp and loud, especially when we stop at the Central Control Station, where a handful of technicians, including Chief Engineer Chris Coons, operate the ship’s four LM 2500 gas turbine engines, which throb right underneath where we stand. Coons, like much of the SDTS’s crew, is a civilian contractor licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. “I came up through the hawsepiper, and that’s just a nautical term,” Coons says. “All the chief engineers and licensed personnel have gone through STCW [Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping] basic and advanced firefighting, HAZMAT, CPR — a bunch of steps you have to go through to achieve that license.”
“He knows how to run the plant,” says Lt. Davis, pointing out the control equipment lining the walls of the compartment, half of which consist of old-school dials and metering instruments from another era, with the other half largely made up of modern flat-screen computer monitors. “The ship used to be analog and all of this stuff had to get converted over to digital to interface with the remote-control unit. A system was created called DRIVE, which is Digital Remote Interface Vectoring Equipment. The cool thing about the ship is that because this system is all over the ship, depending on your level of logging into the system, you can actually start an engine from multiple locations — from the bridge or designated control stations.”
Motioning to the cutting-edge, all-digital side of the compartment, Lt. Davis notes, “On a modern destroyer or cruiser, the CCS (Central Control Section) would look very similar to this half of the room. Chris is talking to the bridge and all of his information is passed to the remote control center so they know what they’re driving the ship with — he will let them know if there are any problems — if a shaft is having a problem, exactly how fast they can or should drive the ship that day. This was designed with these guys here on the ship so that we can allow that interface and go from analog to digital remote control. This ship has two screws, two shafts on the bottom and props, and two engines on each screw, so during normal operations there would be one engine driving each screw. To save fuel we drive one shaft and let the other shaft follow it — that’s called trail shaft. A normal ship might try to maneuver to avoid fire but we actually want the target to fire at us to test the weapons systems, so we don’t rely on high maneuverability from the ship itself.”
Indeed, the SDTS is designed to be a sitting duck, except for its multiple layers of devastating defense technologies capable of destroying incoming missiles, aircraft or seagoing vessels anywhere from hundreds of miles to just a few miles away from the ship. And, as Lt. Smith points out, in order to fully test all these technologies to their limits, the SDTS had to get rid of the human factor — because the human instinct is to eliminate any threat to the vessel as far away from the ship as possible, long before it becomes a danger to the ship’s fragile, flesh-and-blood crew. “In an operating world, if you have a threat coming in, you want to put some of your F-18s and other aircraft on it far out to determine what kind of threat it is,” Lt. Smith says. “You want to either engage with the aircraft or missiles, reaching out and touching something far out there before it even becomes a threat. There’s a point, too, where missiles are no longer effective, because the point where you launch at something that’s coming in at mach speed, it just becomes a math equation. Then you have these point defense systems like CIWS.” Lt. Smith points at a dome-shaped weapon mounted above us on the ship’s superstructure — essentially a very sophisticated, incredibly powerful Gatling gun. “It has its own radar and it only goes on at close range, so when something’s coming in toward the ship, that’s kind of a last-ditch measure. You’re talking about those systems where it’s measuring the closure rate of the threat to the ship, so if something has a crossing angle it’s not going to set that thing off, but if I was sitting at Tactical Action Officer, my first thing would be to engage missiles, and if missiles are a no-kill, I’d put CIWS in auto, and it’s going to automatically track what’s coming in and start spitting out 4,000 bullets a minute that will shred that missile at close range.”
The Aegis integrated ship combat system, Lt. Smith’s area of expertise, uses advanced computer and radar systems to track incoming targets and guide onboard weapons to destroy them. But, as Lt. Smith explains, some of the system’s most sophisticated features might be the last things a human operator would deploy. “In Aegis, we can set up parameters that meet threat A, and anytime the system sees threat A, just automatically cue up and start firing missiles. Normally, we’re not in that automatic state because of the human factor. It’s the same thing with a ‘soft-kill’ system. [For example,] you can launch a cloud of chaff — which is like a bunch of bubble gum wrappers, little metal pieces — and you can launch a cloud of that into the sky that [on radar] looks like a much larger target than the ship [and draws the incoming missile off target]. That’s a soft-kill measure and it works really well. But if you’re the guy on the ship and you’re sitting there waiting to launch your cloud, you’re not comfortable with that, and your instinct is to launch other things to make sure that missile isn’t going to hit you. So the SDTS is a perfect platform to test soft-kill features, because no one is going to test soft kill to that degree where you have something closing in on you. Or testing CIWS — we’d never test that with a target that’s going to hit us.”
Since the CIWS is powerful enough to obliterate an incoming missile, it’s also more than capable of dealing with any small surface craft that might harass a larger naval vessel. (In 2000, terrorists used a small boat to get close to and explode a bomb against the guided missile destroyer USS Cole docked in Yemen, resulting in 17 crewmembers being killed and another 39 injured.) “The gun will put hundreds of pieces of metal out there and it’s going to tear that target up,” Lt. Smith says of the CIWS system. “It also has a surface mode with a camera, so you have an operator and a joystick and a laser for targeting. You can put that camera on a target, lock on and put 3,000 rounds on it.”
The SDTS also sports weapons that confuse rather than pulverize, operating more like a computer hacker than an armed soldier. Lt. Davis points at a white, spherical object mounted just behind and above the ship’s bridge. “The big white ball is V-SAT, that’s satellite communications, and right below that is a tetrahedral thing which is an electronic warfare system, where we’re messing up other peoples’ signals — that’s another soft kill that’s tested on this ship.”
Lt. Smith explains that the ship’s radar systems identify various threats — incoming aircraft and missiles — by their radar signatures, and the vessel’s systems react accordingly and automatically.
The SDTS’s bridge doesn’t look wildly dissimilar to what you’d expect to see in any movie set aboard a military vessel, but a closer look reveals some additional layers of technology, including the ship’s Remote Control Interface Unit, which translates commands from the Surface Warfare Engineering Facility at Port Hueneme into operational actions onboard the test ship. It takes hundreds of people to oversee the unmanned ship but there’s only one remote “driver.” The control systems in the remote station mirror those on the actual ship, and the remote driver needs to be in sync with the on-ship driver to make a smooth transition from manned to unmanned and to have the most successful test.
“The drivers sit here, and I have never once seen them grab the throttles and move them — it’s all digital,” Lt. Davis says, pointing out the standard metal throttle levers on the bridge of the ship. “If you want to go 5 knots, it’s actually controlled by RPMs and pitch. You can drive the ship from Engineering or from the Remote Control Center.” Lt. Davis notes the cameras positioned both inside and outside the bridge. “The cameras show that we are talking to the RCIU and the link is good and we have positive coms with SWEF, so all of that stuff is in there before we turn over the ship to run on remote. Then we actually come over here, the ship’s master would actually flip the switch — this is the RCIU and that talks to the DRIVE, there’s a protocol convertor between the DRIVE system and the RCIU, and you turn the key, they walk to the back, get on the helo and after that it’s controlled from the Remote Control Center.”
Of course, civilians operating boats and planes near the test area need to be dealt with so they don’t wind up in the way of a 560-foot ship under remote control, or missiles being fired at it. “On a regular navy ship we’d have at least five people up here,” Lt. Smith explains from the bridge. “An officer of the deck, a conning officer, a helmsman and a quartermaster, and a forward lookout. Here, we put the ship in remote control, and those five pairs of eyes looking 360 degrees around the ship are gone, and you still have a massive ship out there chugging around in the water, and hundreds of times I’ve been out on naval vessels and it looks like there’s nothing there, and suddenly a whitecap turns into a little fishing vessel and you’re in trouble. You don’t have that same kind of eyeball. We clear the range with aircraft, and they clear the entire water space, but you never know when some crab fisherman is going to go out at 5 a.m. and have no idea what’s happening.”
And what if something still goes wrong and you have an armed military vessel operating off the coast of California with no one onboard? Turns out there’s a fail-safe system for that contingency, too. “You have to have faith in the engineering,” Lt. Davis says. “Redundancy and safety have been built in. Say the remote link goes out, nobody’s on the ship, and I’m giving her directions but nothing’s happening. After so long, the ship will turn and steer a pre-determined course until she runs out of gas. So we can then get a helo out there, put guys onboard and get local control.”
At the moment, the SDTS fulfills a vital yet limited role. But the use of unmanned flying drones was fairly limited a decade or so ago, so it’s possible the ex-Paul F. Foster represents the future of naval operations, when sailors may indeed join the Navy to “see the world,” but from the comfort of an air-conditioned remote-control facility near you.
Photos by David E. Williams