Thursday, October 15, 2015

Charting a New Course: Celestial Navigation Reinstated at USNA

By Lt. j.g. Devin Arneson

Picture this: A naval vessel is navigating the high seas thousands of nautical miles from land. Suddenly all navigation systems become inoperable. What happens next? What does this mean?

The Navy looks to its past to chart its future. With today’s technology rapidly advancing, the Navy realized that many basic techniques are still relevant to safe operations at sea.

Celestial Navigation (CELNAV) is one skill that has not been formally taught to Navy officers, depending on one’s commissioning source, for more than 15 years. Officer Candidate School did not teach CELNAV, NROTC stopped teaching it in 2000, and the Naval Academy removed it in 2006.

Based on direction from the Chief of Naval Operations, CELNAV has been reinstated into the navigation curriculum and is a requirement in the Officer Professional Core Competencies Manual. This administrative change ensures the instruction will be an enduring requirement.

The Naval Academy resumed classroom instruction during the summer session of 2015. The class of 2017 will be the first in many years to graduate with a basic knowledge of CELNAV.

During their junior year, all second-class Midshipmen currently take Navigation 310: Advanced Navigation. This course has been adjusted to contain three hours of celestial familiarization, providing students basic principles and theories of CELNAV. It includes PowerPoint presentations along with homework and tests based on Chapter 20 from the 15th Edition of Dutton’s Nautical Navigation by Thomas J. Cutler.

“It is a core competency of a mariner,” said Director of Professional Development Cmdr. Adan Cruz. “If we can navigate using celestial navigation, then we can always safely get from point A to point B.”

The Midshipmen also take two cyber classes during which they learn about the vulnerability of electronic navigation systems and how they can be affected by cyber threats. The classes include how information moves, jamming, the RF spectrum, and many other topics in cyber security.

“Teaching CELNAV is just one thing necessary to learn in order to get ready for the battlefield that’s already out there. Cyber affects all battlefields to include sea, land, air, and space,” said Director of Center of Cyber Security Studies Capt. Paul J. Tortora.

Cyber threats aren’t the most likely reason electronic navigation systems might fail. System degradation, electrical failures, satellite malfunctions – there are any number of reasons GPS might be rendered unusable on board a ship.

Outside the classroom, the academy’s Varsity Offshore Sailing Team uses CELNAV for the Marion to Bermuda race. GPS is used until the sailboats are 50 miles offshore. Prior to the race, the team members used the planetarium in Luce Hall for exposure to what kinds of stars and constellations they would be able to shoot to celestially navigate.

“Everyone is reliant on technology, but celestial navigation is very self-sufficient.  There’s not a more basic way than to use the sails and the stars,” said Midshipman 1/C Jared Valeske, skipper and tactician for the race in summer 2015.

Midshipmen are also exposed to CELNAV during summer training cruises on USNA’s Yard Patrol Craft and Offshore Sailing Training Squadron sailboats. By the end of the summer, the nearly 600 Midshipmen who participate in these two programs have a practical understanding of the benefits of CELNAV and what encompasses a day’s work in navigation.

The bottom line is that even with technological advances, the basics still apply.


  1. Let's do the many USNA grads become SWO's? Less than 25%. So you're putting the entire class through an archaic class to maybe help the 25%? Knife fighting literally has more application and is more likely to be experienced.

  2. Don Chappell, TexasOctober 15, 2015 at 10:28 PM

    I took my commission in the Marine Corps (1974). I never had to use a sexton, but I have used my understanding of celestial navigation (a whole semester's worth, not just 3 hours) many times, both on active duty and as an Operations Analyst for Lockheed Martin. Understanding celestial navigation is like chemistry or literature; some things are worth learning just for learning how to think. BTW I also had knife fighting lessons at USNA and USMC, but thankfully I have yet to use that -- still glad to have had the training though.

  3. Best to be prepared for all situations.

  4. Anonymous, thats not a very sound understanding of what education and training is about. Education is about getting a full well rounded perspective about the profession your are going into and its history so that you understand how it evolved to where it is now. By learning how it was done before the rise of satellite navigation (GPS) you gain the necessary insights into the art and science of navigation. I learned land surveying first by learning how it was done with a 100 ft chain and with a theodilite. This the way they surveyed back in colonial times. Why if today's instruments are GPS equipped and instead of a chain we use lasers? Its because we learn the fundamentals of the skills and the principles behind how the technology works. It's also for the same practical reasons mentioned in this blog. If the equipment fails in the field then we go old school.

  5. confidence and character in professionalism is also gained in the knowledge and management of the seemingly mundane and archaic relevant to discretion being the better part of valor...

  6. This creating a business portfolio is representing new course for navy and hard working is most important for every one.


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