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US Air Force, MSC retire missile tracking ship ‘Invincible’

USNS Invincible
US Naval Ship Invincible inactivation ceremony at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., Dec. 15, 2021. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) and the Military Sealift Command held a joint ceremony to bid farewell to US Naval Ship Invincible after 34 years of service.

Invincible retired in a ceremony on December 15, 2021, at the US Army Transportation Wharf near Patrick Space Force Base, Fla., where AFTAC has its headquarters.

USNS Invincible housed the Gray Star radar system that provided unique, high quality, high resolution, multi-wavelength radar products used to monitor US or foreign missile, space or weapons test events worldwide.

Launched in 1986 and put into full operational service in 1987, the ship’s original mission was to patrol the seas looking for submarines using its sonar array. The vessel was refitted in 2000 to support Joint Chiefs of Staff missions to monitor missile or weapons test events that could pose hazards or threats to air or surface navigation.

During its tenure, USNS Invincible deployed worldwide and AFTAC provided a company grade officer to serve as the ship’s mission commander, whose responsibility was to ensure the platform’s team successfully collected and delivered vital mission data.

The decision to inactivate the ship was based on higher headquarters requirements to balance sustainment costs, operational effectiveness, and the Department of Defense’s pivot to strategic competition, the air force said. The Pentagon continues to operate a wide range of capabilities to support ballistic missile defense operations and is investing in their upgrades.

Maj. George W. Statzell V, a former Invincible mission commander and current officer-in-charge of AFTAC’s Commander’s Action Group, reflected on his time at the helm of the ship and the importance his crew played in national security.

“It takes a lot of coordination and teamwork to effectively employ an asset like Gray Star radar,” said Statzell. The team aboard the Invincible made it work by focusing on the importance of the information they provided to national decision makers.”

He added, “It was a highlight of my career to serve as Invincible’s MC. It’s not often a junior officer gets the opportunity to command a naval mission, much less an Air Force officer. The job was demanding and had its own heightened level of stressors, but it was also a richly rewarding experience and one I’ll carry with me for a lifetime.”

USNS Invincible on operations in the Arabian Sea in 2012. Photo: US Navy

USNS Invincible played a critical role in the US National Security Strategy serving as a mobile tracking platform for recording data on missiles and satellites that were typically out of range of established land stations. During its time abroad, Invincible collected data on 73 different systems in its primary area of responsibility, the Middle East, providing the nation’s most senior decision makers with technical measurements to monitor nuclear treaty compliance.

It will take approximately seven months to fully inactivate the ship, with plans to repurpose it into a training vessel or stored as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The radar system will be repurposed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct testing and evaluation of advanced radar technologies.