Future Tense

Naval Academy Brings Back Celestial Navigation Training in Case of a Cyberattack on GPS

Russian Prime Minister (then-President) Dmitry Medvedev uses a sextant in 2011.

Photo by Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

Protecting critical infrastructure from cyberattacks is an ongoing concern, whether you’re thinking about the electric grid, ports, water treatment plants, or anything else. And a curriculum decision by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is a reminder that the same fears exist for the Global Positioning System. After almost 20 years of teaching students to rely primarily on computers, the Naval Academy is starting to ramp up celestial navigation training again.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the Naval Academy’s department of seamanship and navigation, told the Capital Gazette last week, “We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great. … The problem is there’s no backup.”

When the school originally phased out its notoriously difficult celestial navigation course in 1998 (it had been taught since the academy’s founding in 1845), analog advocates freaked out. “The reports set off an outpouring of laments, including an editorial in The Times, about how unfortunate the loss of the sextant would be, and how valuable it could still be in the practice of celestial navigation, even in an age of computer technology,” a May 1998 New York Times piece explained.

The Naval Academy didn’t bring back a full course on navigating by the stars this year, but it is offering a three-hour introductory session to help familiarize students with the old-fashioned tools, so they could turn to them in an emergency. School officials say that they may expand the program. The Gazette reports that the academy is concerned about everything from one-off incidents like a malfunctioning GPS receiver on a particular ship to a full-scale cyberattack on GPS.

Old-school navigation was never out of style in other training programs. In October 2013, for example, Lieutenant Daniel Wiltshire, then a navigation program coordinator at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, told Ocean Navigator, “Even in this high-tech age, the practice of celestial navigation has enduring utility to Coast Guard officers.”

It may sound romantic to look to the stars in times of trouble, but it seems like a wholly practical decision to make sure someone in the Navy knows how to navigate without GPS if the lights ever go out.