back to article US Navy grabs old-fashioned sextants amid hacker attack fears

Sextants have been off the curriculum for naval officers in the US for over a decade, but now the swabbies have reinstituted celestial navigation classes over hacking fears. The US Navy discontinued celestial navigation courses in 1998 because GPS made the old style of navigating redundant. Working out your position the old- …

  1. BernardL

    Coast Guard?

    ISTR that the US Coast Guard never stopped teaching sextant. Something about being "real sailors"...

    1. Peter Simpson 1
      Thumb Up

      Re: Coast Guard?

      Always, always have a backup, and a backup to that backup. Mother Nature is a cruel, heartless bitch, and she will kill you without a second thought if she thinks you're not giving her the respect that she deserves. And that goes double at sea (as the crew of the El Faro, RIP, found out recently).

      I'm frankly surprised that the Navy discontinued celestial navigation courses. The Army's still teaching Land Navigation with map and compass.

    2. johnfbw

      Re: Coast Guard?

      Coast Guard. I wonder if they ever thought to look over the side - if they can't see the coast they might be too far away from it!

  2. cantankerous swineherd

    "calculations ... handled by computers" good luck with that, the dastardly Chinese hackers / Muslim fanatics / whatever will have hacked them as well.

    1. keithpeter Silver badge


      "...and a serious amount of math work to get your position within a couple of miles"

      Nothing you can't put on a programmable scientific calculator. There are power series on the orbital elements for the positions of the Sun and Moon up to navigational accuracy for a couple of years either side of now that can be downloaded into a modest calculator along with positions of the navigational stars. Coordinate transformations are relatively routine.

      Coat: Mine's the one with the Ebco emergency sextant in the (large) pocket.

      1. James Micallef Silver badge

        Re: Computer?

        Exactly that. Not only the calculations actually. Given the advanced state of current imaging, image recognition and processing, you could automate the whole thing end-to-end, with a machine that takes it's own star readings, processes them, identifies the stars based on internal maps*, does all the necessary calculations and outputs the result.

        As long as it has a clear view of the sky it can continuously keep a position reading, and perhaps use some form of dead reckoning to estimate a position when it can't get a star/sun reading. Also might be possible (I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than me about these things) to use not just visible light detection but other frequencies. For example would it be possible to use some form of radio telescope to identify where the stars are even if it's cloudy?

        *as you mention these need to be downloaded into the machine occasionally, the machine itself should be airgapped otherwise that negates the whole anti-hacking thing

        1. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: Computer?

          Indeed, automated star trackers have been used on spacecraft for years.

          You suggestion of using radio frequencies to pinpoint stars is an interesting one. Off the top of my head the problem would probably be that the antenna required for radio astronomy would be fairly large, but then boats can be very big. And it wouldn't just work through cloud, you can do radio astronomy all day as well.

        2. ian 22

          Re: Computer?

          No one's mentioned inertial guidance and dead reckoning. I've not kept up with ICBM technology, but as I recall, they used optical gyroscopes to achieve targeting accuracy to within several meters.

          If we can entrust doomsday to inertial guidance, surely the Navy can trust it.

      2. Peter Simpson 1

        Re: Computer?

        Addition and subtraction and looking up values in tables mostly. As long as you have your copy of Bowditch, there's no heavy math. Adding and subtracting hours, minutes and seconds is about as tough as it gets.

        1. el_oscuro

          Re: Computer?

          One of the problems ancient sailors had was the lack of reasonably accurate clocks. The clocks used back then used pendulums so they wouldn't work on a ship.

      3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Computer?

        > and a serious amount of math work to get your position

        As has been done by the Royal Navy since about 1750.. one of the (many) reasons why their officers couldn't buy commissions but had to pass their exam before being made lieutenants.

        Not really a serious amount of maths though - if it can be done on a frigate deck, in a storm in the bay of Biscay on a slate with a bit of chalk then I suspect it doesn't qualify as a 'serious amount' (except maybe the serious bit - especially if you are relying on it to keep yourself from losing your keel to rocks..)

      4. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Computer?

        Yep, I can make do with log tables just as well as a slipstick. Since the nav gear was "mine" I went ahead and qualified as a helmsman, quartermaster and navigator (including underway replenishment) which made me the backup in case all the officers were dead. [Which surprised the f--- out of some trainers who thought they could pull a fast one on us.]

        Mine's the one with the one foot diameter, ivory circular sliderule in the huge pocket. [Gramps gave it to me in his Will.]

    2. Alister

      calculations ... handled by computers

      Ha, they'll be Chinese I-Ching calculators, so the Lat / Long will always come out as "A Suffusion of Yellow"

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "calculations ... handled by computers" good luck with that, the dastardly Chinese hackers / Muslim fanatics / whatever will have hacked them as well

      maybe a sign that todays spotty yoofs need to learn maths as well as how to claim benefits

      1. asdf

        >maybe a sign that todays spotty yoofs need to learn maths as well as how to claim benefits

        I rip on millennials more than most on here but much of why they are claiming benefits has to do with the Baby Boomer leadership. Grandson I need you to sacrifice so me and Grandma don't have too.

  3. elDog

    And the navigation systems for those Trident/Poseidon missiles?

    One hopes they can't be hijacked by some kid on the ground messing with GPS-type signals.

    Or that the inertial on-board systems are damned accurate.

    Or that the smaller midshipmen can fit inside the missile while using the sextant and peering out through the 1x1cm quartz window.

    1. J P

      "...peering out through the 1x1cm quartz window."

      Don't they use pigeons for that?

      (Sorry about the icon; closest I could get)

      1. ScottAS2

        Re: "Don't they use pigeons for that?"

        They tried, believe it or not.

    2. notowenwilson

      Re: And the navigation systems for those Trident/Poseidon missiles?

      Trident missiles have a combined INS and star-sighting system as they assume that during global nuclear armageddon someone would have managed to knock out GPS.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: And the navigation systems for those Trident/Poseidon missiles?

        But the starting point for the INS is based on GPS.

        That was the original purpose of the USN forerunner to GPS - to give a sub a good known starting point without it having to surface off Murmansk and wait for enough clear weather to get a fix

        1. MondoMan

          Re: Starting point for INS

          The starting points for military INS systems are typically military bases with the known surveyed location coordinates painted on e.g. a nearby hanger wall. GPS can and is used to verify and adjust the INS position, but I would hope that a large discrepancy would be noted and investigated.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: And the navigation systems for those Trident/Poseidon missiles?

          No, the start point is a geographical reference point. OMEGA, GPS, and other data points are mapped against our INS which was a LASER Ring Gyro. In our case, since we (probably) carried Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), we had two of them. We trusted them a Hell of a lot more than SatNav or GPS.

    3. Julz

      Re: And the navigation systems for those Trident/Poseidon missiles?

      They take their own position from the stars as they pass through apogee ...

  4. Old Handle

    Navy to resume sexting

    Come on, how did you not title this article thus?

    1. Chozo

      Re: Navy to resume sexting

      I am so pinching that for a blog post title

  5. Kev99 Silver badge

    Leave it to the idiots to put critical apps out on the internet. It's not called the web or net for nothing. Both are just a bunch of holes held together with some string.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      They're worried about GPS satellites being physically destroyed, or the radio frequencies being jammed. The internet has noting to do with this.

  6. Scubaman66

    Using a sextant, tables and either MSH or Long by Chron to get your position takes comfortably less than 5 minutes with practice.

    In addition military vessels and aircraft usually took a starting fix using sextant and then plotted transits using compass and stopwatch during only confirming final position with another sight based fix at the end of any series of manoeuvres Much quicker and usually accurate enough for purpose.

    I can also remember back when I was a 3/0 in the Merchant Navy back in the early 80's that there were one or two companies starting to produce sextants with built in navigation calculators (stand alone versions also being the latest tech at the time) so that you took the sight, pressed the button and plotted the result.

  7. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Are they teaching swimming when the boats go missing or using oars when the engines are switched off?

    1. Scubaman66

      By your implied analogy - why at primary school teach maths (in case the calculators stop working) or writing (in case the word processor packs in.)

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      There is no need to worry about anyone hacking the engines - they run "Windows for Warships"

    3. MondoMan

      re: swimming, oars, etc.

      Certainly all sailors need to know how to swim, if only for emergencies. I'm pretty sure the US Naval Academy still has sailing as a required class -- if nothing else, it's a lot more fun and less work than rowing.

  8. Lars Silver badge

    Oh dear

    I hope this article is not a copy of something written by a naval officer, but as it seem to be, by a guy who knows nothing about celestial navigation. If the US Navy is the first in the world to give up on celestial navigation then sigh, sigh and sigh, not that I am surprised at all.

    But first of all a sextant is totally worthless without the exact time, (as mentioned), the original first problem in fact. But lets assume there is somebody with a not hacked iphone or something. Then you need the nautical almanac and why not a dead wood one if you feel the computer is hacked. A very nice book and very useful for people with insomnia who have given up on counting sheep, reading it makes wonders. Some of you will also know how that book relates to "computing" history.

    Next you won't get a position at all, what you get is a line, much like what you get from GPS with only one satellite, just ask Fry, or perhaps not.

    Apart from the sun and stars there are also planets and the moon.

    And it's even possible to do without a sextant just by timing objects when they hit the horizon (hard to get anything very exact that way though).

    However, what annoys me are "and a serious amount of math work to get your position" and "by a computer, which is a blessing for anyone who's ever had to do the work by hand".

    That is complete rubbish, it takes less than a minute, paper and pencil, with mathematics kids learn when 6 to 7 years old (like + and - ). Oh dear.

    Coat without the sextant I gave away.

    1. FutureShock999

      Re: Oh dear

      "It takes less than a minute, paper and pencil, with mathematics kids learn when 6 to 7 years..."

      I don't know where YOU went to school, but in my country we never studied spherical trig when we were 7. 17 maybe.

      The difference is in what kind of "cheater" tables you have, such as Blewitt's book or similar. Having a big book of "cheater" summarisation in a look-up table makes the whole process, as you say, rather simple mathematics - PROVIDED YOU HAVE THE BOOK. (or the newer calculators that have the tables in them!).

      But to do it the LONG FORM way, without the aforementioned tables in a book, requires the use of spherical trigonometry, as they did it back in the olden days of wooden ships of the line - Nelson's day. It is tedious, and difficult to get right (lots of chances to mess up the sign of the calculations). I've seen it done a few times, and could not do it myself if I had to. At least not from memory. Even if my life depended upon it.

      1. Imsimil Berati-Lahn

        Re: Oh dear oh dear

        ..but if you don't have the book, then you don't have the celestial body position data so you can do all the spherical trig you like, you'll be missing a third of the data you need to calculate your position line.

        Since you need the almanac data somewhere, why not include the sight reduction cheat-sheets in the same volume?

        I suppose you can get an approximate fix from a noon-sight of the sun provided you've got a reliable timepiece. That'd be good enough for trans-oceanic intercontinental nav, but good luck if you're aiming for a fly-turd speck of an island somewhere. You're gonna need a taller lookout mast.

        1. SkippyBing

          Re: Oh dear oh dear

          I remember being taught Astro-Nav in the Navy* back at the start of the century. My abiding memory is of the instructor saying not to worry if we didn't remember too much of the lessons as if we had to use it for real there'd be plenty of time to read the instructions in the almanac while we waited to take the midday sighting, or for the stars to come out.

          *The original one.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Next you won't get a position at all, what you get is a line"

      That's why you get more than one and see where they intersect - exactly just GPS works. Usually, on a ship there was not a single officer taking measurement.

      Of course you need a good clock - probably something better than your cell phone, but I hope any officer didn't stop also getting a good one, and ships too.

      1. Peter Simpson 1
        Thumb Up

        Re: "Next you won't get a position at all, what you get is a line"

        My cheap and waterproof quartz wristwatch is accurate to a few seconds a month. John Harrison would be amazed.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. disgruntled yank

      Re: Oh dear

      Isn't a drugstore Timex or equivalent quartz watch as accurate as an expensive chronometer of the old days, or more accurate? One could check it daily against a trusted clock, so that it would have to keep time independently only for the length of the outage.

      Also, the US Hydrographic Office (now the Navy Oceanographic Office) used to publish big books of tables for just this use. I don't know where you'd get them now, but I bet the Navy does.

    5. el_oscuro

      Re: Oh dear

      That's why you need to have an old school battery watch, like a Timex or some sort.

  9. Scubaman66

    Anyone remember the delights of using Decca or Loran (and the appropriate charts) when running close to land?

  10. Gray

    USCG & USN binned the eLoran system for GPS

    Do a bit of digging to learn how our "we don't need no backup, we've got all these shiny new satellites!" geniuses dumped the partially-built eLoran enhancements to the existing Loran system, after spending million$ to upgrade the existing stations. eLoran provided an order of magnitude improvement to Loran, and is essentially proof against jamming.

    Yes, ye lubbers ... JAMMING! A disgruntled teen with a pocket jammer off the internet can easily blank the extremely low-power GPS signals for miles around. It's happened several times in US port locations. GPS super-high freqs are also susceptible to physical and environmental degradation.

    eLoran is very low freq and very high power, virtually impossible to jam. As for hacking, it's also relatively 'low tech' and defensible.

    Backup? We don't need no steenkin' backup. We gots GPS! (Think of all the military and domestic aviation, transport, commerce, and surface transportation systems that are now locked in to total GPS dependence ... and this Navy commander sez, "We'll probably just turn it off!" Oh, my achin' head!)

    1. CAPS LOCK

      Yes eLoRaN is what we actually neeed...

      ... It's very nice of Uncle Sam to provide GPS sort-of free, but eLoRaN is the correct solution. Cheap, robust and adequately accurate. What's not to like?

    2. Peter Simpson 1
      Thumb Up

      Re: USCG & USN binned the eLoran system for GPS

      Backup is RDF and they still have that, even on cruise ships.

      Identify a few AM stations, take bearings and plot an estimated (within a few miles, at least) position.

      It won't get you into the harbour entrance, but it might tell you which way to look for it.

  11. Stevie


    Never should have shut down the Loran stations.

  12. Old Used Programmer

    What's Old is New Again

    I took a Celestial Navigation course at UCBerkeley in the 1960s. We didn't go out to do actual sights, though the theory was discussed, but we did plenty of sight reductions to get a position from data supplied.

    As for the time that point anyone who actually going to do navigation did their level best to afford to buy an Acutron watch, as they were more accurate than the ship's chronometers at the time. So long as it was set correctly and you either knew it's drift and rate or what offset to apply for a limited amount of time, you were set for time keeping good enough to navigate with. Good quality modern watches are better. For that matter, I have a $3 RTC attached to a Raspberry Pi that is good to within about 30 seconds per year and means the time error after a year would be within 7.5 arc seconds of correct, where one arc-minute is one Nautical mile.

  13. Alan J. Wylie

    GPS currently being jammed in Scotland

    Operation Joint Warrior 152

    Dates: The exercise will run over the period 05-16 Oct 2015.

    Times: There will be continuous, opportunity and pre-planned events during the period 05 0700 Oct to 16 2359 Oct 2015.

    Location: GPS jammers will be located at two sites: Feraid Head and Loch Ewe.

    Type: GPS jamming (denial of service only).

    As in previous exercises, Safety of Life operations will at all time take precedence over exercise activities.

    1. bitmap animal

      Re: GPS currently being jammed in Scotland

      There are often large areas off the coast of Florida, I think it is, where there are regular wanrnings that GPS may be unreliable due to tests and exercises. If it's jammed then you [probably] know it is not working, if it's unreliable and still rely on it then who knows where you'll end up.

      1. Imsimil Berati-Lahn

        Re: GPS currently being jammed in Scotland

        GPS gets jammed off the coast of Florida to piss the Cubans off, either / or it's the Cubans trying to piss the US off. I think the former more likely, cos if it were the latter it'd meet with short and probably violent shrift.

  14. bitmap animal
    Thumb Up

    Pre GPS navigation

    Pre GPS aircraft navigation is amazing, there is so much to take in and you could be in a Vulcan cruising at neatly 600MPH ( 10 miles a minute ). Using Celestial Navigation they could get their position to within about 5-10 miles, it's more of a black magic art coupled with some science.

    I'm sure many of you will enjoy exploring, it's a really interesting subject. I've done a quick search and these three links should give you a starter.

  15. dotdavid

    "But you can't hack a sextant, or the planets"

    Hack the planet

  16. Mike Banahan

    Without an accurate watch

    It's not true to say that without an accurate watch a sextant is useless for navigation. Within sight of land it has various uses which don't need time, but more importantly, far offshore it can still be used to get your latitude accurately enough for most navigational purposes - and if you sail down a line of latitude to make your landfall, you will be copying the navigators of pre-chronometer time. If you want your longitude too, you do indeed need an accurate watch to use a sextant simply.

    With modern computing support, it should actually be possible to use other techniques to determine the time from our moon or the moons of Saturn (fiendishly hard to do by hand). But if you have a computer you probably have time accurate to a second or two and that's adequate for longitude too until you sight land, unless it's featureless and you can't pick out landmarks.

    It all depends on how precisely you need to know your position of course.

    1. Lars Silver badge

      Re: Without an accurate watch

      "It all depends on how precisely you need to know your position of course.". Indeed, If I still remember Slocum bought an old clock, boiled it in oil, and claimed there was no minute finger. Some claim it was his way to shove a minute this way or that way is not that important when there is plenty of water around you. There are radio stations just for giving the time signal, so with a short way radio and preferable a stop watch you could do well even without a time-peace. I do write with hand on experience.

      Coat with old-fashioned knife screwdriver and some coins.

  17. Wiltshire Paul

    Back to Basics

    I joined the Royal Navy as a Seaman officer in the late 70s and spent many a morning watch as a midshipman practicing the art of astronavigation. by definition, astro is normally used on passage not in coastal waters where different techniques for finding your way around safely are used. Using a combination of equipment - ship's chronometer (master timekeeper), deck watches (cheaper less accurate chronometers with known errors/drift that are calibrated to the ship's chronometer every day by the Navigator's Yeoman) and sextant can produce really quite accurate fixes. All calculations were done on sight reduction tables that reduced the maths to basic addition and subtraction thus eliminating the "complex" spherical trigonometry,RN junior officers were never regarded as intelligent enough to master that subject!. With practice, a good accurate fix +/- 5 miles (perfectly adequate for ocean passages) could be achieved in about 10 minutes. The only other long distance navigation aid available was Loran C and use of that was discouraged as the possibility of jamming could render it useless. It was drilled into us from day 1 that the "Mark 1 eyeball" method was the best, most reliable method as it couldn't be interfered with by any potential enemy. Just look up Captain Bligh's epic journey in an open boat in the Pacific, safe passage over 1000s of miles achieved by just observing the world around him at the time. Don't get me wrong, modern nav aids are very accurate and convenient but can't be relied upon when the shit hits the fan.

    1. Stevie

      Re: Back to Basics

      Yarr! Ye be a pasty faced landlubber, so ye be. When at sea, all y'need is a trusty stolen Dutch rutter, a bit o' knotted rope and the shp's giant egg timer to get where ye be a-goin. No need at all for these new-fangled "sextants" or fancy timepieces.

      1. x 7

        Re: Back to Basics

        "Dutch rutter"

        Is that an Amsterdam working girl? Is that the origin of the word "sextant"?

    2. asdf

      Re: Back to Basics

      Bligh's journey was amazing especially for the distance but I still maintain the greatest feat in navigational history was the Voyage of the James Caird. The conditions more than make up for the shorter distance.

  18. Steve Wysham

    Don't stop at sextants

    The US Dept. of Offense better put long oars on those submarines as well. Oh, and a tiller.

  19. x 7

    The fact is you can't rely on modern electronic navigation aids.....

    A story told to me by a former captain on Jimmy Sherwood's UK Seacat fleet.......apparently if you went over 20 knots the radar suddenly halved the reported distance of reflected objects. Obviously a programming glitch, but one that couldn't be resolved (or at least not during his career on the catamarans). My understanding is that the problem is still there now.

    What other software glitches are there out there, maybe unrecognised?

  20. sjsmoto

    Having read Ernest Shackleton's lifeboat journey from Elephant Island to a 720-nautical-mile-distant South Georgia, I'm mightily impressed with what the "old ways" of navigation can do for you.

  21. Petrea Mitchell

    "But you can't hack a sextant, or the planets"


    How do you know that your sextant is accurately marked, and your ephemeris is correct? There was probably software involved in creating both of them. And they've both probably spent some time sitting in a cabinet that multiple people had access to, and a supply depot before that.

  22. Stevie

    Near the coast

    You don't need a sextant either. If you forgot your trusty astrolabe you can quash your manly male instincts, pull into shore and just ask a native where the f@ck you are.

    1. x 7

      Re: Near the coast

      "pull into shore and just ask a native where the f@ck you are."

      People like William Dampier tried that but.....

      1) the shore was too rocky to land

      2) the natives ran away

      3) the locals didn't speak English. Or French. Or Dutch...or Spanish or......

      Pretty amazing he managed to circumnavigate three times (100 years before Cook) but then he was an expert navigator and cartographer so had real skills to fall back on

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Near the coast

      "You don't need a sextant either. If you forgot your trusty astrolabe you can quash your manly male instincts, pull into shore and just ask a native where the f@ck you are."


  23. Stevie


    Where's the fun of sailing for the Americas without the chance of crashing into the Scilly Isles in the dark?

  24. Tom Paine

    And what's wrong with log tables?

    Can't hack a sextant perhaps, but an EMP that takes out the computer you use for the trig-and-log-tables work we were taught from the age of 12 back when schools were real schools and teachers were real teachers would still leave the USN guessing their position. (I suppose the EMP would also have killed the boat's propulsion anyway, so maybe not that big of a deal I suppose.)

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