TNB Night Owl – Cornfield Cruiser

USS Rancocas: The Cornfield Cruiser March 2016. Photo by Ravi Shah.

Locals call the landmark, the “Cornfield Cruiser”. Several miles east of Philadelphia, among the cornfields of rural southern New Jersey, there is what looks like a US Navy ship within plain sight of I-295.

The large building started life in the late 1950s as a US Air Force engineering and test site dedicated to the development and support of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar project. For nearly twenty years, the structure had a huge radome on top – a geodesic dome that looked like an enormous golf ball – housing a radar dish. Eventually BMEWS became obsolete, and having no more use for the site, the Air Force was ready to unload it.

At the time, the US Navy was looking for a place to develop a new shipboard radar system of their own, to be called AEGIS, which would identify and track enemy missiles launched from land, sea, or air. The USAF real estate was well-suited for the Navy’s purpose, so they purchased the property from the Air Force in 1976, radome and all, for the grand sum of one dollar.

The Navy’s new AEGIS radar system didn’t use or need a radome, so that came off the building and was replaced by… a ship. Well, not the whole ship, just the forward deckhouse superstructure (the part above the hull’s deck). The superstructure was originally supposed to be part of a naval strike cruiser. That hull was cancelled, but the superstructure design, with AEGIS radar built into it, became an integral part of Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

To thoroughly test the design and operation of AEGIS, the Navy wanted to duplicate real-world conditions as closely as possible. The previously unused but hull-less superstructure was installed on top of the building in place of the removed radome.

The newly re-designed facility was officially commissioned in 1977 as a US Navy “ship” called the USS Rancocas (LS-1) – named after the nearest water of any kind, Rancocas Creek. In 2008, the facility was officially renamed the Vice Admiral James H. Doyle, Jr. Combat System Engineering Development Site (CSEDS).

The AEGIS radar system in the superstructure is complete and operational, and used for research, development, support, and testing. Also, because it’s functionally identical to actual Navy ships equipped with AEGIS, Navy personnel are trained at the facility to operate the missile defense system. Since the facility is close to New York City, large numbers of aircraft in the vicinity are regularly tracked which makes for a realistic training environment.

Question of the night: What’s your favorite (or least favorite) food that contains corn?

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About Richard Doud 65 Articles
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