Global Positioning Synecdoche: Prelude, Part Two

Part One looked at the spread of radionavigation after the Second World War and particularly the deployment of Loran-C, which was both the US Air Force’s precision long-range navigation system and an important source of navigational cues for US ballistic missile-launching submarines.

Enter Omega
The US Navy had begun its own experiments to find a longer-ranged radionavigation system as soon as the original Medium Frequency Loran-A system was operational. Coast Guard experiments with Low Frequency Loran were followed in the early 1950s by an experimental Navy system called Radux and then in 1957 by a third hyperbolic Very Low Frequency system. The advantage of a VLF system over Loran-C was that, unlike Loran, it could offer true global coverage.

Preliminary operations of what became known as Omega began in 1968. The VLF signal’s wavelength was so long that the system couldn’t measure pulse timing like Loran did, and so it used measurements of the phase difference of a continuous wave instead. The results were far less precise than Loran-C, with absolute accuracy of 1,800 to 3,600 meters, but only eight stations would be required for coverage of the entire world.

The Omega Controversy
Loran-C had fit comfortably into a world filled with civilian navigation aids. The original Loran (called Loran-A once Loran-C came into service) was available to anyone after the end of the Second World War. In Britain, Decca Navigator (developed during the war by Decca Records, of all people) was commercially available and popular. So too was Consol, an adaptation of the German wartime Sonne. All three used different mechanisms; any was sufficient for most civilian navigation needs. Availability was defined mostly by politics: Loran dominated the US and was available across Europe and the Pacific in allied territories, while Decca was popular in Europe and the British Commonwealth.

Omega, on the other hand, attracted a lot of unfavorable attention when the US started negotiating the construction of overseas stations. Opposition to construction in New Zealand forced that station to be moved to Australia, where it also attracted numerous protests. The Norwegian station brought similar controversy. In each case, protestors claim that because Omega could be used as an external fix to reset the INS of a ballistic missile submarine, the stations would be targets in any US-Soviet war and, because of their vulnerability, the system was an inducement towards launching a first strike (You can read some contemporary summaries in issues of New Scientist). Particularly telling from this point of view was the fact that, unlike Loran-C, the Omega signal could be received by a submarine while still deep underwater.

One never says never when it comes to military secrets, but there aren’t any signs that the US considered Omega in its operational years as important for its ballistic missile submarines. When development of Omega began there was no Loran-C network, nor any other systems offering the likelihood of precision navigation in distant waters. In the interim, not only had Loran-C gone into service but the discovery that the doppler shift of orbiting satellites could be used to fix locations had also led to the Transit navigational satellite system. The first Transit satellite was launched in 1959, and the system became operational in 1964.

Why then did the construction of Omega systems provoke so much backlash?* For one thing, the 1970s were a less accepting era when it came to military activities than the early 60s, when the Loran-C network was built. For another, the transmitter at an Omega station was huge. A Loran-C station required a 620-foot tall (189 meter) transmission tower, roughly the height of a 43-storey office building. That’s not small. But, because of the extremely long wavelength, an Omega station’s transmission tower at least 1200 feet (365 meters) tall, just a little less than the height of the Empire State Building. In Norway and Hawaii, the transmitter was actually hung between two sides of a fjord or a mountain valley.

Omega may have got bit by the technological sublime. As fans of eighteenth century aesthetics will recall, the original meaning of “sublime” was something so awe inspiring that it creates a feeling of horror as much as pleasure. With a physical footprint so impressive, Omega could hardly have avoided troubled attention. Impressive as it was, though, Omega also had the bad luck of being leapfrogged by satellite technology. VLF radionavigation development was well underway before Sputnik was launched, but Transit was fully operational before the operational Omega system got under construction. By the time Lumsdaine and Kjoller were taking an axe to its spiritual successor, GPS, in 1992, Omega’s days were numbered. Omega operations were discontinued in 1997.

*There is a book on the subject written by Norwegian peace researchers and published in 1988, but it’s in off-site storage at the university library so I have no idea when I’ll have a chance to get a look.

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