U.S. Navy Brings Back Navigation By The Stars For Officers A decade after phasing out celestial navigation from its academy courses, the U.S. Navy has restarted that formal training. The shift comes at a time of growing anxiety over possible threats to GPS.
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U.S. Navy Brings Back Navigation By The Stars For Officers

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U.S. Navy Brings Back Navigation By The Stars For Officers

U.S. Navy Brings Back Navigation By The Stars For Officers

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, many of us rely on our smartphones to get from point A to point B. You know, you fire up your maps application.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Head west on Patterson Street northeast...

INSKEEP: You know, that's directions on Google Maps there that would get me home. The U.S. Navy does pretty much the same thing. GPS and digital charts have become the norm aboard many of its vessels, but the Navy is worried about electronic warfare. So as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, it's returning to an ancient technique - navigating by the stars.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's a Monday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the midshipmen are getting ready for their first lecture on celestial navigation.

DANIEL STAYTON: So raise your hand if you have ever determined your location on the planet using the stars.

BRUMFIEL: Lt. Daniel Stayton is leading the class. A midshipmen halfheartedly put ups her hand.

STAYTON: So at least one. All right, so I've got to stick to the truth then. I can't just make stuff up.

BRUMFIEL: Right up until the mid-20th century, navigation on the sea was done by looking at the heavens above. But starting in the late 1970s, the military began launching GPS satellites and everything changed. In 2000, the U.S. Navy began phasing out sextants and charts in favor of computers. Rear Adm. Michael White is in charge of the Navy's training.

MICHAEL WHITE: We do periodic reviews of our curriculum to make sure we're teaching the most appropriate material in the time allotted. We don't have infinite training time available.

BRUMFIEL: Training became focused on the Navy's equivalent of Google Maps, something called the Voyage Management System. It uses GPS, radar and other tools to precisely track a ship's position and course across the ocean. But after a decade of focusing on electronic training, the Navy is reversing course, and there are a couple of reasons why. First, the U.S. military is increasingly worried it's overly reliant on GPS.

BRIAN WEEDEN: We use it to synchronize all the military operations. We use it to navigate everywhere. It's - you know, it's just something that the U.S. military really can't live without.

BRUMFIEL: Brian Weeden is with the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that studies security issues in outer space, where GPS satellites orbit. In a big war, the satellites could be shot down or, more likely, the GPS signal could be jammed or hacked. Already, jamming is becoming more common, Weeden says.

WEEDEN: You can buy all kinds of GPS jammers off the Internet. Well, a lot of those are made by Russia.

BRUMFIEL: He thinks the Russians probably have systems to jam the special signals the military uses as well. And China may be developing similar capabilities. Adm. White, who heads the Navy's training, says there's also a desire to get back to basics. Over the past decade, navigation systems on ships have gotten easier to use, so less training is required. He says the Navy is bringing back celestial navigation to make sure its officers understand the fundamentals.

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

BRUMFIEL: In fact, there's been at least one incident in the past decade where a Navy ship ran aground in part, investigators say, because of problems with the electronic navigation system. Back in the classroom, the midshipmen are finishing up their first course. And frankly, they seem a little bewildered. Twenty-year-old Audrey Channell says until now, celestial navigation wasn't on her radar.

AUDREY CHANNELL: I mean, obviously I've heard of, you know, in the old days using stars to navigate. But I never thought I'd actually be using it.

BRUMFIEL: Like many of the other midshipmen in this class, she uses GPS in her daily life. Her instructor says, that's OK. No one is expecting these future officers to become Magellans overnight. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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