Posted by: Sam Carson | 12 April, 2007

GPS, Iranians and Territory

The recent stand-off between the UK and Iran over the fifteen detained seamen was not an incident over territory, but over prestige. The Iranian leadership was quite keen to humiliate or provoke a world power, and none better than one with historic significance in the region. People seem focused on the debate over where the sailors were at the time. I do not think it would have mattered, it may not have been this group of seamen but it was doomed to happen, as Iranian leadership wants to exercise it’s increased power. It also presents a minor shift in the way that we see territory.

At sea, navigation is not as absolute as it is on land. Navigation at sea is a “relative” concept. The traditional navigator is not thinking exactly where he or she is, but rather where everything else is in relation. Position, prior to GPS, was noted as a range from objects or triangulation of angles.

When one practises Celestial navigation, using a sextant, you take an angle from a heavenly body (like the sun) at a certain time. You then find out where in the heavens that object is at that time, and the result is that you have a geographical relation to that star or sun.

The only thing really treated as absolute in sea navigation is at close quarters, when you are manoeuvring to a dock, or through a dangerous channel. It uses a different mindset.

GPS has obviously changed this, and quite radically. Not at first, until 2000 an error was built into commercial GPS, it was called Selective Availability. The US military had special sets the circumvented this, it was there so that the bad guys couldn’t make their own smart bombs using the good guy’s technology. Bill Clinton had it turned down to 0 (but not “off”), and since then we have been in geographically precise heaven.

The GPS system works by a bunch of satellites sending out constant time signals. Imagine we are both mathematical geniuses. You shout to me where you are and the time. I note the time that I heard you shout. It isn’t instant, there is a small faction of a difference between the two times.

I can use this slight difference (because I am a mathematical genius) to discover how far away from you I am. Since you have told me where you are, I now have a Line of Position. I can be anywhere along that line. However, if I have another friend shouting as well, then I have two lines of position, and where they interconnect is generally where I should be, if I have a third, then I have a pretty accurate idea (most navigation textbook suggest three or more LOPs). Almost all GPS units are 12 channel systems. They have 12 friends.

Prior to GPS, the Iranian would not have captured the fifteen seamen due to Territorial Waters. How would they be able to tell? Navigation was not absolute, people didn’t think land precision at sea unless they were around hard things.

People just didn’t think like that at sea. And for the most part, they still don’t think like that now unless fish or oil are involved. I have been boarded at sea several times, but only when I was indisputably within territorial waters. I mean, by miles.

So, I find it interesting that the Iranian leadership would choose this as a point of contention. I don’t think that I am alone in finding it interesting either. First Sea Lord Admiral Jonathon Band has stated that the rules of engagement would be a part of the review of this incident. This isn’t a surprise, but it makes me wonder if Iranian insistence on absolute position has come as a surprise.

Iranians would understand the concept of absolute thinking imposed on a relative environment. Not far from them, and certainly in influence of their airspace and region, is the Southern Iraq No-Fly Zone. The No-Fly Zone was operational from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 until at least 2003, and still exists in de facto terms. Aircraft avoid this area, in the absolute terms we expect from the American military.

I am not saying there is a relationship, or even explicit influence between the no-fly zone and the incident with the 15 seamen. What I am saying is that the world will look at territory differently. GPS has pushed boundaries and borders out to sea, and potentially changed the way we see territory on the water.


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