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Do any armies teach celestial navigation?


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A while back I took up celestial navigation as a hobby. I even went so far as to buy a marine sextant although I don't own a boat. (Don't ask why, I'm weird like that.) And I learned how to do "sight reduction": the process of calculating where in the sky a star should be for an "assumed position" and comparing it with where you see it in your sky and determining your position from that comparison.

Anyway I was watching a video which said (at about min. 4:20) in operation Desert Storm, the Iraqis didn't expect the U.S. to come from the West because it was a vast desert where it was easy to get lost. Little did they know that the U.S. was equipped with the relatively new technology known as "GPS."

That got me to wondering...do any armies teach celestial navigation? (I know the U.S. Navy still does.) I mean it sounds complicated at first, but once you understand the basic principles you see that it's really not. There are even devices (artificial horizon and bubble horizon) which allow for the use of a sextant anywhere inland. Using this technique, one can find their position anywhere on Earth, as long as the sky is clear enough to see a few stars. Even the Sun by itself can be used and the Moon can also be used to determine the exact time (although this is a more obscure technique.)

Seems to me that having at least one guy attached to a fighting force in a barren location who is familiar with these techniques would be good insurance if the GPS fails. (And sometimes they do.)

My father is a retired Lt. Col. and a former Ranger with the U.S. Army. He told me he and his buddy won the "Night navigation without a compass" challenge. I asked him how and he said "with pace counts and dead reckoning." That's all well and good if you're looking for markers in a forest with no shortage of reference points, but out in the desert you might as well be in the middle of the ocean...or outer space for that matter.

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Well all of us are taught very basic stuff like finding the Southern Cross at night (not much use for the North Star in these parts) and using your non digital watch and the Sun as a compass during the day.

But no one carries a sextant in their pack. :)

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It isn't an emphasized as much as it was back in the day before GPS, but we teach navigation via spacial recognition of key features on the map. The ability to look at a topo map and then understand what that looks like on the ground is invaluable.

The standard once was "lacking GPS, when questioned, provide grid of own position to within 100m" - and getting it wrong was an instant fail on the trace.

That doesn't help you in the open desert as much as it does in Gagetown or Wainwright, but it is a very useful skill to have. I had no problems navigating in Ft Irwin day or night.

DG

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The first navigation training I had was when I was in the Scouts, later it was when I started flying. Never had to use a sextant tho, but it was still taught to navigators when I was going to join the RAF back in the early 1970s.

A couple of years ago a friend started to show me how to take a sighting with a sextant when we were aboard his ship

_DSC7095.jpg

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Wow that looks like a nice sextant! Mine is a cheap plastic deal, but it works okay and was about a fifth as expensive as a metal one.

Anyway, I hear what you're saying, RecceDG. I also bought a Cammenga lensatic compass. After reading the army field manual on navigation and the PDFs available here, I was amazed at what you can do with just this piece of equipment and a map. (Not to mention the ability to construct an accurate scale map of your own from scratch using one.)

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The sextant belonged to the ship, Maresk Seville, the guy on the right is the Captain and we are in port at Zeebrugge. He had not used a sextant for quite a long time he said so many aids to navigation now!

I trained as a service engineer for Decca Radar servicing and installing radars and navigation equipment, when I first started it was all valve equipment and by the time I done my training it had progressed to transistors and that new fangled multi legged thing called an IC.

.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decca_Navigator_System

This is what I started out on, the Mk12, though the Mk5 was still in service on a few fishing boats, the Mk21 just came into service just after I started in 1973

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I have never received any training on celestial navigation with the US Army.

In fact, most of my training has been about terrain association, or using terrain to find where you are on the map. The problem is, most land navigation courses (tests) are done on completely flat ground with Vietnam-like thickets....see: Fort Benning

The best land Navigation course that I ever completed was at Fort Sill, where you were able to actually associate hills and terrain features with the topo map that you were provided with.

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The problem is, most land navigation courses (tests) are done on completely flat ground with Vietnam-like thickets....see: Fort Benning

The best land Navigation course that I ever completed was at Fort Sill, where you were able to actually associate hills and terrain features with the topo map that you were provided with.

Yeah, that's what I mean. The desert is like that. No reference points. That's why I figured celestial navigation would be handy in that type of theater.

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Everybody put your helmets on: war story time:

On my Phase 4 (the course that teaches patrol commanding and troop leading) my confirmation trace for patrol commanding in the defensive. I have to take a two-car recce troop and establish an OP (plus all the associated battle procedure - get orders, issue orders, etc etc) and being a "confirmation trace", this is my final exam to see if I get to continue to the next portion of training.

There are any number of ways for this to go pear-shaped, but there are two "instant fails". The first is not having eyes on the objective by the time specified in orders; the second, not knowing where your position was within 100m without reference to GPS.

These traces are set up so there is just enough time - barely - to get all the steps done on time. There just isn't enough wiggle room in the schedule to soak up Murphy's Law.

I have received orders, and per the drill, my patrol is going to do a preliminary move to a hide near where I expect to establish my OP. Once in the hide, I'll do a recce, find a place for the OP and alternate, mark them, and return to the hide to write and issue orders. Then the patrol will occupy the OP, and with the OP established, the trace ends and I get my assessment.

But the second the patrol leaves the hide for the preliminary move, a thick Gagetown fog drops on us, and visibility drops to maybe 75m Our movement speed plummets, and I can no longer see any terrain features by which to navigate. Even the sun is hidden so I don't have an east/west reference, and we are traveling cross-country and along Gagetown's unmappable network of blacktracks so I can't even use "take the second left".

We plod along like this for a while, and the little nagging voice in my head starts saying that something isn't right. What terrain I should be seeing - as much as I can see in fog this thick - doesn't look right. That voice gets louder and louder, and finally I pull out the compass and have a look.

It says that the nose of the track - which I know is facing due north - is facing east.

And I distinctly remember looking at the compass and thinking "wow, my compass is broken".

No, no, that's not right. Compasses don't break. It must be all the metal in the M113 that I'm in throwing off the compass. So I have the driver stop the track, I dismount, and I walk a few steps away, watching the compass all the while. I fully expect to see the compass swing away from the track and start pointing in the direction I know is north.

It doesn't.

Oh shit - I really was going east. I somehow got turned around in the fog, and I have absolutely no idea where I am. All the instructor needs to do is ask "where are you?" and I fail the trace. On top of that, I somehow need to figure out a plan to unfuck myself and get back on my route, because precious time is bleeding away and if I don't get to that hide soon, I'll be late for observation established and that's a fail too.

OK, so where was the point I last knew exactly where I was? Assume I turned east there. Now assume that I only turned east a moment ago. I'm somewhere in that pie piece of ground between those two points - and there's a major orange route running east/west just north of this bit of space. If I drive due north, I'll hit this route eventually, then I can turn left and follow it until I encounter something that pinpoints my location.

Back to the track. Turn north. Drive. Keep a firm eye on the compass and ensure we stay pointing north. There's the orange route! Turn left. And after a km or so, I encounter a Gagetown graveyard and now I know EXACTLY where I am.

And at that exact point, the instructor taps me on the shoulder and asks me where I am. Here. Very well, carry on.

From there, I work out a new route sticking to major orange tracks, and just as I arrive at my hide location, the fog lifts. Sprint to the recce, find a spot, sprint back, issue orders off the top of my head, drive like madmen to the OP, and I get someone in the OP with 30 seconds to spare. Trace passed.

Map and compass FTW.

DG

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And at that exact point, the instructor taps me on the shoulder and asks me where I am. Here. Very well, carry on.

Probably he was just as lost as you and likewise recognized the graveyard.. that's why/when he tapped you ;)

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What recce's story nicely shows:

Beeing good in (land)navigation doesn't mean to be allways on the right way. Thats easy.

Realizing when you are wrong soon enough to sort it out again, THATS THE TRICK! ( and the thing where many many fail)

I'd like to add another short warstory here:

At a time I was instructor for future squad leaders(preperation course before they go to the actual NCO school). We where doing land navigation training. As a starter we send them on a march using map, sketches and compass to test the skills they should have from their training allready.

They start marching and I had to accompany them, after about 1h walking into a wrong direction(I knew,but not allowed to tell), I'm allready a little pissed. We come to a crossroad. The "squad leader" checks the ways with his compass, compares them with the crossroad on his map where he THINKS he is. and then says: "ok this way is it!"

I envision a night of futile walking, so I ask him: "Did you check the bearings, does it fit?"

"Well, the way in the map is 10mil...this one about 8, to that should be about right."

I say: "Ok..." I think:"Fuck, there goes this nights sleep!"

In short: He screwed up, never realized his mistake and even failed to rethink when I gave him a hint.

At one point his squad mates took map and compass from him ;-)

Edited by Grenny
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Probably he was just as lost as you and likewise recognized the graveyard.. that's why/when he tapped you

Having subsequently been an instructor, I guarantee that's the case. :D

A Gagetown fog is unreal. 75m visibility, full stop. You can see the bushes immediately next to you, and everything else is a sea of grey.

I can also say this - after phase training, a number of exercises in the training area, and having been an instructor, I now have 80% of the training area memorized. I don't need the map any more. Wainwright, Meaford - same deal.

DG

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Hi all

in Gulf war one we even had sun compasses/dials fitted to our turrets just in the field of view of the loaders sight.

I cant remember how they were used but it involved moving the turret to specific point at whatever speciffic time of day it was etc.

Irish

PS as a side note they had an awfull sharp edge to them, many ripped uniforms cuts and curses.

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Hi all

in Gulf war one we even had sun compasses/dials fitted to our turrets just in the field of view of the loaders sight.

I cant remember how they were used but it involved moving the turret to specific point at whatever speciffic time of day it was etc.

Irish

Yes same theory as for your watch.

We also used to have them on ours until the guys started turning up with their personal GPSs and then Army unveiled their "ruggardised" ones that were the size of a brick. :)

Edited by Gibsonm
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In my platoon in Afghanistan we shouted "road recon!" on the net. As long as you were the only one realizing you were lost, you could always say that you needed to recon that road or terrain. Worked great! seven months, never lost. Still use it..:)

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Has anyone ever checked out this sailing simulator? It's pretty cool. You can download lots of add-on vehicles including large naval vessels, submarines and even "pirate" ships. All with working weapons. There are also dynamic weather conditions including ocean currents.

I downloaded a U.S. Sturgeon class sub and was hunting German battleships the other day. Good times.

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  • 1 year later...

[necromancy]

Well, looks like the U.S. and our allies might have weapons that use celnav soon. Interesting...

Star Trackers Harden Ground Targeting Systems from GPS Spoofing

...and on a somewhat related note:

...members of an alleged terrorist cell responsible for stashing and smuggling huge amounts of weapons into Bahrain [have] been arrested in connection with a massive anti-terrorism operation. [...] According to suspects' confessions, they received training on use of weapons, RPGs, AK47s, M16s and MP15s, the manufacture and use of explosives, night sniping and marksmanship techniques, celestial navigation and use of co-ordinates, methods of smuggling through sea points, piloting boats, long-distance swimming, surveillance and monitoring and personal security and avoiding being followed..."

[/necromancy]

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