Naval Academy (Re)Turns to the Stars to Steer in a Digital Era

by Matthew DeLuca /  / Updated 

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The potential for digital-age computer failure has the U.S. Naval Academy looking skyward — to the same millennia-old method sailors have long used to navigate the world’s vast oceans.

After years of cutting back instruction on how to sail by the stars, the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, has reincorporated three hours of lessons on the skill into the advanced navigation class required for all 2nd class midshipmen, an Academy spokesperson said. Maryland’s Capital Gazette first reported on the classes.

That’s partly because the Navy simply recognizes celestial navigation as an important ability, said Naval Academy spokesperson Cmdr. John Schofield, and partly because any number of things can go wrong once computers get involved.

“Among many things that are considered when reinstituting a core competency into a navigation curriculum is the idea that GPS becomes inoperational, and that could result from anything ranging from a fire to operational error to system degradation or a cyberattack,” Schofield said.

Also, it’s just good to know something about the techniques Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan used to sail the seas well before there was Google Maps, said Schofield, who taught celestial navigation at the Academy from 2000 to 2003.

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With hundreds of ships and more than 325,000 active-duty personnel, the Navy has a lot of computers that could go on the fritz, or be subject to the same sorts of cyber threats that businesses and individuals across America face every day.

“The Navy Networking Environment consists of more than 500,000 end user devices; an estimated 75,000 network devices (servers, domain controllers); and approximately 45,000 applications and systems across three security enclaves,” Vice Adm. Jan E. Tighe, commander of the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, said in testimony before a congressional subcommittee in April.

The Navy is not alone in recognizing the potential dangers digital aggressors pose. The Army, Air Force and Coast Guard have all set out plans to defend their systems against threats in cyberspace.

And the Navy itself, not the Naval Academy, has included celestial navigation in its curriculum since 2011, after briefly discontinuing the instruction five years earlier. It continues to roll out the skill for sailors across the fleet, a spokesperson said on Thursday.

“The reason we brought it back in 2011 was as part of a continual assessment that’s done by our Naval Education and Training Command,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins. “They felt it was just an important mariner skill to have.”

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Pilot courses in celestial navigation were introduced as part of Navy ROTC programs at schools including the University of Rochester and Auburn University this fall, he said, and the skill will be included in quartermaster training beginning next summer.

“We always look to ensure redundancy just as a basic form of safety and resilience,” Hawkins said.

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