Oceanographic Research Vessels

Some of the most important, ground-breaking research on the world’s oceans over the past seven decades have taken place on the U.S. Navy’s research vessels.

The U.S. Navy’s fleet of oceanographic research vessels traces its history back more than 70 years.

Following World War II, the government supported a diversity of academic oceanographic research—and the oceanographic fleet included a hodgepodge of converted wartime vessels: tugboats, minesweepers, subchasers, and escort vessels.

In June 1952, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) established a panel to spark the ocean community’s interest in ship design and solicit recommendations for a purpose-built research vessel. ONR also sponsored a conference focusing on oceanographic ships, which generated important characteristics for research vessels and led to a 1955 Navy design study investigating their feasibility.

The result was the design for the Auxiliary General Oceanographic Research (AGOR)-class oceanographic ship, funded in 1960 to support the Navy’s “Ten Year Program in Oceanography”—which called for 20 research ships, including 12 for academic institutions. These latter ships are owned by the Navy but operated by universities or research organizations such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Construction on the 283-foot, 1,370-ton research vessel (R/V) Robert D. Conrad (AGOR 3) was completed in 1962, with 11 ships to follow over the next 5 years. However, by 1966 their limitations were recognized. So the AGOR 14 class was designed, incorporating new propulsion concepts for station keeping and maneuverability. Only two ships of this class were built: R/V Melville in 1969 and R/V Knorr in 1970.

In 1984 a new Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations “Navy Policy on Oceanography” included a requirement for replacement of the aging AGOR 3 class. This initiative involved a major overhaul of Melville and Knorr, and design and construction of the AGOR 23 class—with deliveries in 1991 (R/V Thomas G. Thompson), 1996 (R/V Roger Revelle), and 1997 (R/V Atlantis).

R/V Sally Ride (AGOR 28), operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is the most recent addition to the Navy’s oceanographic research vessel fleet.R/V Sally Ride (AGOR 28), operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is the most recent addition to the Navy’s oceanographic research vessel fleet.
(U.S. Navy photo)

With the construction and delivery of the Small-Waterplane Area-Twin Hull (SWATH) vessel R/V Kilo Moana in 2002, ONR’s fleet of six research ships was fully modernized. Planning for replacement of the AGOR 14 Class began in 2001, and eventually resulted in the design and construction of the AGOR 27 (R/V Neil Armstrong) and AGOR 28 (R/V Sally Ride), incorporating 21st-century commercial vessel efficiencies and state-of-the-art oceanographic instrumentation.

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