Protection for Sunken Military Vessels and Aircraft

On October 28, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the FY2005 National Defense Authorization Act.  Title XIV of the Act (Public Law Number 108-375) preserves the sovereign status of sunken U.S. military vessels and aircraft by codifying both their protected sovereign status and permanent U.S. ownership regardless of the passage of time.

  • The purpose of Title XIV, generally referred to as the Sunken Military Craft act (SMCa), is to protect sunken military vessels and aircraft and the remains of their crews from unauthorized disturbance.

  • Thousands of U.S. Government warships and military aircraft lie in waters around the world.  Recent advances in technology have made these wrecks accessible to looters, treasure-hunters, and others who may cause damage. With this legal protection, the potential for irreversible harm to important historical resources is significantly reduced.

  • Moreover, many military wrecks are the final resting places of Americans who died defending our country. Unauthorized disturbance threatens the sanctity of these war graves.

  • This issue is a growing concern both nationally and internationally because in addition to war graves, many sunken warships and aircraft contain objects of a sensitive archaeological or historical nature.

  • The new law codifies commonly understood principles of international law and existing case law confirming that sunken U.S. military vessels and aircraft are sovereign property. This new statute provides for archaeological research permits and civil enforcement measures, including substantial penalties, to prevent unauthorized disturbance.

  • The Department of the Navy will issue implementing regulations authorized under this law consistent with present permitting procedures.

  • This law does not affect salvage of commercial merchant shipwrecks. It does not impact the traditional uses of the sea, including commercial fishing, recreational diving, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and the routine operation of ships.

The current application guidelines for archaeological research permits on ship and aircraft wrecks under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy are located in 32 Code of Regulations Chapter VI, Part 767. Please visit the Archaeological Research Permit link for more information.

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