US Navy teaching officers ancient technique of navigating stars

Command Master Chief Don Ouellette uses a sextant aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall. Carter Hall is deployed as part of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy

“Second star to the right, and straight on till morning” may become a relevant phrase again- the US Navy is once again teaching their officers to navigate via the stars.

According to NPR, the Navy stopped training its service members to navigate by the stars about a decade ago in favor of electronic navigational systems.

However, fears about the security of the Global Positioning System and a desire to return to the basics of naval training are pushing the fleet back toward this ancient, tried-and-true method of finding a course on the high seas.

Navigation by the stars dates back millennia. The ancient Polynesians used stars and constellations to help guide their outrigger canoes across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean. Up until the mid-20th century, navigation on the sea was usually done by looking toward the night sky.

However, once the military began launching GPS satellites, the satellite system provided a far more accurate fix than the stars could. In 2000, the U.S. Navy began phasing out sextants and charts in favor of computers.

Rear Adm. Michael White, who heads the Navy’s training, said the change in curriculum was driven by the need to bring young officers up to speed on the Navy’s equivalent of Google Maps, called the Voyage Management System. Using GPS, radar and other tools to precisely track a ship’s position and course across the ocean, the system is complex and -according to White- “we don’t have infinite training time available.”

So, why the throwback training? The U.S. military is becoming increasingly concerned that they have become overly reliant on GPS. “We use it to synchronize all military operations, we use it to navigate everywhere — it’s just something the U.S. military can’t live without,” said Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer now with the

Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that studies security issues in outer space. He claims that in a major conflict, the GPS satellites could be shot down, jammed or hacked.

Already, jamming has become more common, Weeden said. “You can buy a lot of GPS jammers off the Internet,” he said. “A lot of those are made by Russia.”

He thinks the Russians probably have systems to jam the special signals the military uses as well, with China not far behind in developing similar capabilities.

White, who heads the Navy’s training, said there is also a desire to get back to basics. Over the past decade, electronic navigation systems on ships have become easier to use, so less training is required. He said the Navy is bringing back celestial navigation to make sure its officers understand the fundamentals.

“You know, I would equate it to blindly following the navigation system in your car: If you don’t have an understanding of north/south/east/west, or perhaps where you’re going, it takes you to places you didn’t intend to go,” he said.

In fact, there has been at least one incident in the past decade when a Navy ship ran aground partly because of problems with dependence on electronic navigation.

Still, new officers and cadets find the training a little odd. According to 20-year-old naval cadet Audrey Channell, celestial navigation wasn’t on her radar.

“I mean, obviously I heard about using stars to navigate in the old days,” she said, “but I never thought I’d be using it.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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