The USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964), shown above, was the second ship built in the Spruance-class of US Navy destroyers. Launched in 1974, Foster served during thirteen deployments during her active-duty career, until the ship was decommissioned in 2003. Today, it's the last surviving ship of its class.
Decommissioning was not the end of the line for Foster, however. In 2004 the ship was designated to become the Navy's Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS) -- a role that involves serving as a platform for exercises to test the Navy's shipboard weapons systems, including rockets, missiles, guns, radars, and thermal imaging systems.
Here's how the ex-Foster STDS looks in its current role:
Our friends at gCaptain explain how the ex-Foster evolved in the process:
Since her decommissioning in 2003, her maneuvering and propulsion controls have been replaced by computerized systems that allow her to be remotely controlled. Her new role as a Self Defense Test Ship requires that she be unmanned, as it involves live-fire exercises at a barge towed 150-feet astern. At 563 feet in length and 8,000 tons, she may very well be the world’s largest remote control vehicle. (Emphasis added)
That last bit caught our attention.
A former Navy destroyer, converted into a robotic test ship intended to assess the effectiveness of armamament and defensive systems?
The image conjurs up memories of "The Ultimate Computer," a dark episode of the original Star Trek series in whch the Enterprise is turned over to tactical computer called the "M5 Multitronic System" that can operate the ship without human intervention. All well and good, until M5 goes on a murderous rampage after confusing wargames with actual live combat. (Watch a video of that scene here.)
Reassuringly, the Foster has not been equipped with phasers.
Instead, the Navy explains:
Paul F. Foster, in becoming the Navy’s new Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS), will play a significant role in the Navy’s future. It becomes part of a program that has proven its efficiency by providing the most realistic combat scenarios for test events, while leaving ships and their Sailors available to the fleet to perform their normal duties. The remote-controlled ship provides a flexible test platform, free from the safety constraints and in-port problems associated with manned ships, and alleviates the impact that scheduling difficulties have on fleet assets. [...]
During a typical live fire test, various threats are launched at the SDTS, and the installed combat or weapon system being tested responds to that threat in defense of the ship. While this predetermined attack is actually aimed at a decoy barge pulled 150 feet behind the unmanned SDTS, protecting the ship and its assets, it provides an opportunity to assess the responsiveness and success of onboard systems. Navigation is performed from Naval Air Systems Command’s Weapons Division at Point Mugu, Calif., and combat systems are controlled from Port Hueneme Division’s Surface Warfare Engineering Facility.
This still leaves unanswered the question of whether the ex-Foster really is the world's biggest remote controlled vehicle. Let's do the math: At 529 feet long and 8000 tons, the ex-Foster is far bigger and heavier than the world's biggest unmanned aircraft, Israel's Eitan UAV. It's obviously more massive than any pint-sized Army tank or planet-exploring robot. Ex-Foster is even bigger (and of course heavier) than the 250-foot Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) drone airship.
Suffice to say, it does indeed seem likely that the former USS Paul F. Foster wins world's biggest RC prize. Just remember to keep your distance.