Talking Points on the Sunken Military Craft Act

This new legislation does not change law, but rather ensures its uniform application within United States' jurisdiction and encourages reciprocal enforcement and protection by foreign sovereigns.

While the Property Clause of the United States Constitution underpins continuously indefinite ownership of U.S. military craft, sunken or otherwise, the favorable case law articulating this proposition has been principally limited to the Fourth and the Eleventh Circuits through a handful of cases. This act extends that limited case law uniformly across other Circuits. Accordingly, the long run effect of the act reduces cost, inconvenience, and anomalous uncertainty of future litigation. Greater certainty of the law could further be expected to discourage challenges to United States' ownership and the associated physical risk to sunken military craft by unpermitted recovery actions.

This clear statement of United States' policy is also likely to induce other nations to respect U.S. ownership and induce parallel expressions of sovereign intent. From time to time, major maritime powers including Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and Spain have articulated their positions consistent with or acted in conformity to the U.S. policy position.

The statute provides the following:

  • Protection of sunken U.S. military ship and aircraft wherever located.
  • Protection for the graves of lost military personnel.
  • Protection of sensitive archaeological artifacts and historical information
  • Codifies existing case law, which supports Federal ownership of sunken U.S. military ship and aircraft wrecks.
  • Provides a mechanism for permitting and civil enforcement to prevent unauthorized disturbance.
  • Encourages the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, to enter into bilateral and multilateral agreements with foreign countries for the protection of sunken military craft.
  • Does not affect salvage of commercial merchant shipwrecks, or recreational diving.
  • Does not impact commercial fishing, or the laying of submarine cables.
  • Does not relate to the routine operation of ships.

Previous case law supporting government ownership of its sovereign property:

Hatteras, Inc. v. The U.S.S. Hatteras
1984 A.M.C. 1094 (S.D. Tex. 1981), aff'd, 698 F.2d 1215 (5th Cir. 1982)

U.S. v. Steinmetz
763 F. Supp. 1293 (D.N.J. 1991), aff'd, 973 F.2d 212 (3rd Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 113 S. Ct. 1578 (1993)

Sea Hunt v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel
221 F.3d 634 (4th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 121 S. Ct. 1079 (2001)

Int'l Aircraft Recovery, L.L.C. v. Unidentified, Wrecked, and Abandoned Aircraft
218 F.3d 1255 (11th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 121 S. Ct. 1079 (2001)

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