Navy Resumes Teaching Celestial Navigation Just in Case GPS Is Neutralized – UPDATE

Navy Resumes Teaching Celestial Navigation Just in Case GPS Is Neutralized – UPDATE

With growing concern about the vulnerability of U.S. national security space systems, resiliency is the watchword and the military services are looking for alternatives in case space systems are unavailable.  The Navy, for example, has resumed teaching celestial navigation in case the Global Positioning System (GPS) is rendered unusable. 

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) at a hearing on Thursday that celestial navigation is “back in the curriculum at the Naval Academy and other places” in order to minimize the Navy’s vulnerability to electronic systems like GPS: “We gotta stay in the channel, ma’am.”  He added that the Navy also is working with its industrial partners on
“other ways to get precision navigation and timing into our systems” that are “independent of GPS and
potentially more precise” not only for navigation, but weapons systems performance.

(Richardson did not elaborate on the extent of the training, however.  Alan Littlell wrote in Ocean Navigator on December 31, 2015 that the course for third-year students at the Naval Academy is only a three-hour segment of a broader course on advanced navigation and does not teach the “core workload of celestial navigators: sextant sight reductions on sun, moon, stars and planets.”  Indeed, the Naval Academy’s course descriptions for all its navigation classes do not mention celestial navigation.) 

Richardson and the other three military chiefs testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about long-term military budget challenges.  Joining him were Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller.

Goldfein noted in his opening statement that to maintain its technological edge, the Air Force is “laser focused” on five areas, one of which is “preparing for a war that could extend into space.” The others are “fighter, tanker, and bomber recapitalization, nuclear modernization …. increasing our capability and capacity in the cyber domain, and leveraging and improving multi-domain and coalition friendly command and control…”

Apart from that, little of the hearing touched on the needs of national security space specifically.   

Senators Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), the top Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), both mentioned threats to space systems among their concerns in their opening statements, but the bulk of the hearing was on the impact on the military if sequestration returns.  Under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, if Congress appropriates more money than allowed by budget caps set in that law, across-the-board cuts are implemented to bring the funding in line with the caps. 

That happened once, in FY2013, and the results were so draconian for defense and non-defense agencies that Congress and the White House have relaxed the caps each year since.  However, the law remains in place and the budget caps, and sequestration, are back in play for FY2018 and beyond.  The purpose of the hearing was to illuminate the damage that would be done to the military if funding is held to those caps.

Few expect that to happen, though, and when asked if they are preparing budget requests that are in line with the BCA limits, each of the military chiefs explicitly or implicitly said no.

Note: This article was updated with the quotes from Ocean Navigator and information about the course listings at the Naval Academy.

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