Home' Work Boat World : December 2015 Contents When the lights go out
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
What are we to make of the news that the United States Naval
Academy has resurrected celestial navigation as a compulsory
unit for its officer training, some fifteen years after it had been
discontinued as unnecessary in the age of global positioning?
Furthermore, it has been advanced to the status of a
“professional core competence”, so the United States Navy
(USN) clearly means business about an ability to handle a
sextant and to tell the difference between Arcturus and Jupiter
It could be that there is a powerful message being given here
about “e-vulnerability” in the age of e-navigation. There has been
no secret about the various trials which have shown that a whole
range of a modern ship’s systems, well beyond navigation, can be
drastically affected by interference or jamming and that the
situation is constantly being exacerbated by ever-cleverer systems.
“The industry is not exactly
over-investing in protection”
We have also been fully alerted to the phenomenon of cyber-
crime and the attentions of hackers, ranging from maladjusted 15
year old nerds in their bedrooms, to entire regiments of
government experts in cyber warfare honing their skills on an ill-
prepared world. And while the maritime world may offer fewer
exciting opportunities compared with financial services or
gover nment agencies for the cyber warrior, experts have already
pointed out that the industry is not exactly over-investing in
There has also been a worrying warning that various “spy ships”
have been spotted steaming around locations where major
communication cables are laid on various sea beds, as if they were
identifying potential targets which, if interfered with, would cause
chaos on stilts in a world so dependent on high-speed data
transfer. Is it time, as the USN seems to indicate, to dust off the
sextant, oil the shades and break out the almanac and navigational
Merchant navies, their training syllabi prescribed by
international convention, never entirely gave up on celestial
navigation, although the days of deck officers hauling their
sextants around in mahogany boxes along with their luggage are
long gone. If practice makes perfect, there is probably only a
minority of officers who would feel happy about hauling out the
ship’s instrument from some dusty drawer in the chart room and
making a decent fist of a star-derived position. There might be
some older officers who like to keep up their skills, out of a sense
of professional pride, but nobody can deny that celestial
navigation it is a lot more laborious and time consuming than
reading off a few figures from the GPS.
We surely should not doubt the reality of the vulnerabilities
which are helpfully listed by the USN as reasons for their change of
heart. They enumerate system degradation, electrical failures,
satellite malfunctions, cyber threats and all the reasons that might
knock out GPS. But while the celestially trained navigator will be
able to establish his position with pleasing accuracy, using these
tried and trusted means, a serious cyber attack would probably see
the ship completely disabled as all its electronic systems that
depend upon satellite signals and electronic timing would have
come off their rails. Just think about all those blank screens on
bridge and engine control room, everything from air-conditioning
to communication on the blink. An ability to shoot stars might be
of limited utility amid the chaos.
“Where is the fall-back
position – plan B,
if you prefer?”
Old-fashioned skills to circumvent these ailing systems, along
with a lot more robust equipment in pretty well every department,
would be very necessary. One supposes that the USN are up to
speed with measures to keep its systems functioning, but it is clear
that merchant shipping, international logistics, communications
and data transmission have a lot of learning ahead of them. And,
let’s face it, think of an aspect of modern life which does not
depend upon the ministrations of friendly satellites or advanced
electronics and which has not been found demonstrably wanting,
when the lights unexpectedly go out, or transmission ceases.
Where is the fall-back position – plan B, if you prefer - to recover
the situation in an electronic emergency, when e-capable terrorists
strike or diplomatic channels clog up and open hostility results?
My old father, who was a marine engineer when steam was still
pushing large warships around, refused all his life to use an electric
razor, for the quixotic reason that he didn’t want the cleanliness of
his shave to be dependent upon the vagaries of power generation.
He had clearly seen a good few blackouts in his time afloat and was
not convinced that shore-side reliability was all it was cracked up
to be. Viewed in contemporary terms, this does not now seem to
be an unreasonable attitude, with hackers working overtime to
disrupt our lives and every criminal in creation becoming e-
enabled to better target our bank accounts.
In the early 70s, with automation and supposedly intelligent
ship systems being let loose on the maritime world, a shipping
magazine published a celebrated cartoon that was reproduced all
around the world. It portrayed a ship’s control room, but standing
in the corner a tall glass case, in which stood a boiler-suited
engineer, shifting spanner in one hand. The signage alongside the
case spelt out the message - “In case of emergency, break glass”.
Such is the extent of our vulnerabilities, ashore and afloat, we
probably require many more “core competencies” – the glass cases
of today – than celestial navigation, to keep our systems running,
as the interference from so many different causes increases.
We dispense with old skills at our peril.
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