From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Back in 1985, in the second installment of the Back to the Future movie trilogy, Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travels 30 years into the future to stop his future son from making a big mistake. The world he finds on Oct. 21, 2015 is much changed from the one he left behind, and while there is no shortage of debate on the things the movie got right and wrong, here at NHHC there’s no question the Navy has changed in 30 years. If Marty takes a minute to think about it, here are five things he’ll notice are different in, or thanks to, America’s Navy.
1) Today’s Navy Has Lasers! Back in Marty McFly’s 1980s Navy the most widely-used gun was 5-inch 54-caliber gun mount found on the decks of cruisers and destroyers. While the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) has still has a way to go, it was successfully deployed and operated aboard a naval vessel in the Arabian Gulf in 2014. Navy leaders have made directed-energy weapons a top priority to counter what they call asymmetric threats, including unmanned and light aircraft as well as small attack boats that could be used to deny U.S. forces access to certain areas. High-energy lasers offer an affordable and safe way to target these threats at the speed of light with extreme precision and an unlimited magazine. Using advanced laser technology, featuring precise and uniform radiating wavelengths, LaWS makes firing fun because it video game-like controls to fire.
2) The Navy’s newest fast attack submarine, the Virginia Class has technology submarine warfighters in Marty McFly’s 1985 couldn’t fathom. Unlike the Sturgeon-class submarines (known as the workhorses of the Attack Submarine Force during the Cold War) of the day, Virginia-class subs, and their crews, can stay submerged for three months! The subs are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support battle group operations; and engage in mine warfare. Handling like a dream, Virginia class SSNs have a fly-by-wire ship control system that provides improved shallow-water ship operations. In Virginia-class SSNs, traditional periscopes have been supplanted by two photonic masts that host visible and infrared digital cameras atop telescoping arms.
3) Unbelievable as it sounds, there was a time when getting directions to the Grand Canyon from Florida required a very large paper map. Now, because of U.S. Navy technology, almost every American has at their hand a global map and navigation system powered by the Global Positioning System (GPS) found on almost every cell phone. The technology can trace its routes back to the 1977 launch of the Naval Research Lab’s Navigation Technology Satellite II, the first satellite in the Navstar GPS. The GPS system satellites transmit a constant signal generated by on-board atomic clocks. Users equipped with a receiver/processor simply lock onto the signals of four satellites, and then latitude, longitude, altitude, and velocity are automatically computed “within meters” by triangulation. In 1995, it was made available for public use and GPS-guided navigational devices exploded on the market. Phone apps like WAZE make use of almost 40-year-old technology made possible because of the Navy. So while GPS was available in 1985, it’s doubtful Marty McFly knew about it, though perhaps “Doc” Emmett Brown might have…
4) With the exception of the 10-year old Spruance-Class, destroyers in 1985 were outstanding defensive platforms that provided protection for carrier battle groups and naval surface gunfire support, but their offensive strike capability was limited at best. In 1991 all that changed with the commissioning of guided missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51). Centered on the Aegis Weapons System, Arleigh Burke’s combat systems include weapons to oppose airborne, surface and subsurface threats while its Tomahawk Land Attack Missile also gives the class significant offensive strike capability to take the fight to the enemy. In most of the Navy’s combat engagements since Arleigh Burke was commissioned, many of the first shots fired came from guided missile destroyers.
5) There have been so many uniform changes since 1985, it might be difficult to list all the items that have come and gone in the past 30 years. But perhaps the most noticeable change is the disappearance of the iconic bell-bottomed denim pants and chambray shirt collectively known as dungarees, which were replaced by a poly-cotton blend uniform similar to those worn by auto mechanics, which were replaced by coveralls, which have now been replaced by the blue, digital, camouflage-patterned Navy Working Uniform. The battle dress uniform worn by all ranks, E-1 to O-10, was approved for wear in March of 2006 and replaced seven different working uniforms. It boasts near maintenance-free permanent press 50/50 nylon and cotton blend material. Worn with a blue t-shirt, it includes an eight-point cover, a black web belt with closed buckle, and black boots.