It Will Take More Than Celestial Navigation to Hack-Proof the Navy

But it's a nice gesture.

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Oct 20 2015, 11:30am

Image: US Navy

Thanks to celestial navigation, humans have long been charting courses across Earth and beyond with accuracies ranging from pretty damn good to near-immaculate. We've been doing this for millennia even, getting from A to B with no help from satellites or technology at all. The world is built upon this exploration-enabling skill.

Navigation nowadays, however, isn't a skill to be practiced and perfected so much as it is an app, a crosshair-emblazoned button ready to query dozens of satellites in mere milliseconds. It's a bit miraculous really, and notably susceptible to the same threats facing any other networked electronics: cyberattacks.

In light of this realization, the Navy has begun to once again teach the old ways, with a program set to begin next fall that will have all enlisted personnel learning basic celestial navigation, according to the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland (home to the US Naval Academy). The training was eliminated only in 2006, the culmination of a long winding down beginning with a 1996 curriculum review.

A New York Times editorial from 1998 bemoaned the change as a "melancholy surprise." "The satellites on which the Navy relies are unlikely all to fail at once," the op-ed notes, "yet it is hard to ignore the feeling that perhaps the Navy has put a little too much faith in the redundancy of its electronics and too little faith in the valuable human redundancy of teaching midshipmen a self-reliant and time-tested means of finding their way across open water." It seems now that the Navy finally agrees.

Image: Wiki

Satellites failing, however, means something a bit different now. In 1998, the anxiety was relatively vague, a general concern about the fallibility of cutting-edge technology. Now, in the age of Stuxnet and silent cyberwars among global superpowers, the risk has a bit more of a face—if not a guarantee.

From the 1980s until 2002, a retired Navy captain named Terry Carraway ran a non-profit called the Navigation Foundation, intended to ensure that celestial navigation, "a personal skill essential to the seaman," didn't fade away. At its peak, the organization had more than 500 navigators enrolled.

"In the event that we had to go into a national emergency, we would probably have to shut the GPS down because it can be used by potential enemies," Carraway told the Gazette. "It would be pretty hard to train a lot of people in celestial navigation, so we wanted to keep contact with all the people who taught it."

It's not like battleships and nuclear submarines are piloted around the world by a dude with a giant steering wheel peering at some coordinates on an iPhone.

There's a whole lot more to celestial navigation than following the North Star. You could say that it's a technology in its own right. The basic idea is that the various celestial bodies (stars) in the night sky can all be found directly above certain points on the Earth's surface at different times of the year. These points are known as the body's geographical position (GP), given by a certain latitude and longitude.

This information, a celestial object's GP at different times, is centralized in the Nautical Almanac. Using this information, a sailor will calculate an angle between the body and the visible horizon. This angle, or a combination of angles relating to different stars, is related to the ship's position and the GP in such a way that with some basic-ish math that position can be calculated, at least to within an error of around 1.5 miles (which is the most widely accepted and cited maximal accuracy for celestial navigation).

Of course, this is hardly a complete defense against hackers. It's not like battleships and nuclear submarines are piloted around the world by a dude with a giant steering wheel peering at some coordinates on an iPhone. Ships now operate courtesy of computerized systems analogous to the fly-by-wire controls of modern airliners. For example, the Navy now operates a small fleet of so-called littoral combat ships (LCS) designed by Lockheed-Martin and featuring super-advanced networking and automation capabilities.

"On older-design ships, many sailors would need to monitor and maintain the ship across several different machinery spaces using many different systems," boasted Lockheed Martin's Scott Hoyle earlier this year. "With the littoral combat ship design, we have sensors across the ship that feed all of the information to one place where it is automatically provided to crews. We can immediately take action on any level of problem that might exist."

So, yes, understanding celestial navigation is great in case the GPS net goes down—though part of the utility of GPS is or will be keeping ships from running into each other in tight fleet-swarm formations—but that's just one vulnerability of many and many more to surely come sooner rather than later.