The USS Tripoli was first commissioned in 1966 and proudly served as an integral member of America’s “Gator Navy” for three decades. Amongst her many accomplishments were three tours off the coast of Vietnam, acting as a test carrier for the Marine’s new (at the time) AV-8A Harrier jump jets, also being the test carrier for the experimental XV-15 which would lead to the development of the MV-22 Osprey, and operating as the flagship for crucial counter-mine operations during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm, during which she was actually struck by a mine. By 1995 the Navy and Marines required updated amphibious surface combatants, namely those with modern sensors, well decks for deploying hovercraft and beach landing craft, as well as a flattop for launching helicopters and Harriers. With this in mind, and considering the Tripoli’s age, as well as the end of the Cold War, the Navy retired the proud ship.
A decade later, the USS Tripoli, now a rusting hulk that had been long docked at the Mare Island shipyard in Vallejo, was mysteriously transferred “on loan” to the US Army. Activity started to sprout up around the once all but abandoned floating giant and she began to receive peculiar modifications to her deck and island structure. Large temporary (but often permanent in actuality it seems) clamshell hangars were erected on her flattop, similar to the ones seen all over US bases in the Middle East, and her island structure began to receive new aerials and communications domes. Then, in 2006, she was towed out of port and across the Pacific to Hawaii. Here her new and highly unusual purpose would come into focus.
Ballistic Missile Defense development was in full swing during the heyday of the Bush Administration and these new multi-billion-dollar systems needed to be tested under real world conditions. Seeing as BMD capability was increasingly fulfilled by upgraded AEGIS equipped Destroyers and Cruisers, there was a demand for a location to act as a simulated enemy launch site for short to medium range ballistic missiles to adequately test these emerging systems. Building a site in Hawaii, where a large portion of the theater ballistic missile defense tests were to take place, was almost totally out of the question. Even if the DoD could get approval for the construction of such a site it would cost millions of dollars a year just to maintain it. So, the DoD decided that a laid-up old flattop was the best and most cost-effective option available. That flattop being the rusted but stout USS Tripoli.
After being towed out of San Francisco bay, the USS Tripoli stayed in Hawaii for two years performing various test launches and tracking missions in support of America’s Ballistic Missile Defense initiative before she was towed back to her stateside berth in 2008. In 2010 she headed back to Pacific Missile Range Facility off the coast of Hawaii to support the Theater High Altitude Are Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, once again primarily playing the “adversary” missile launch site, known as the Mobile Launch Platform, as well as acting a mobile sensor platform to support other ongoing BMD tests.
Today, the ship has been highly revitalized and extensively modified for her unique new role. She has a fresh coat of paint and sports a multitude of sensors and communications balls, aerials, dishes and other sensor installations, along with her deck mounted retractable clamshell “hangars.” The USS Tripoli’s resurrection is truly a great example of how the DoD and other US agencies can recycle an old antiquated asset, that is already paid for, to do some very unique and high-tech work at a fraction of the cost of procuring a new purpose-built ship or outfitting a less flexible landside installation for such tasks. Considering her historical use as a test platform during her active career, I can hardly think of a more suitable role for this old, but now incredibly valuable, juggernaut of the high seas.
In the end the USS Tripoli escaped the scrapper’s torch while still providing invaluable service to her country and staying true to her proud motto “Semper Princeps” – Always First.