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Fully protecting our maritime war graves requires action and not just words

There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks at the bottom of our oceans. Whilst many are centuries old and long forgotten, tens of thousands of civilian and military craft date to the conflicts of the 20th century, and some of the most important and iconic moments in human history.

From the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941; the British and Argentine casualties of the Falklands Conflict in 1982 to the wreck of the passenger ferry MV Senopati Nusantara off the Indonesian coast in 2006 - shipwrecks retain a special cultural, historical and compassionate interest to humanity.

But these sites of significant importance are now falling prey to treasure hunters and looters, unrestricted bottom trawling, and opportunistic steel merchants.

The urgency to progress beyond legislation and to actively monitor and enforce the protection of these wreck sites is made more critical by the fact that they are:

  • Gravesties

The final resting place of service personnel, passengers, and crew.

  • Hazardous substance control

The need to control hazardous substances including oil, chemicals, and unexploded ordnance.

  • Marine ecosystem

Importance as marine reefs - often with an abundance of marine life.

  • Conservation of historical relics

Contain items of historical importance that are being illegally salvaged and sold.

Protection afforded to land-based war graves

While nations around the world make an extraordinary commitment to honouring our fallen service personnel on land, far fewer memorials exist at sea. This lack of physical demarcation and deterrent is often due to the remoteness of the locations and the expense and complexity of offering persistent monitoring at sea.

The outstanding Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for instance, is funded by six Member Governments and commemorates the men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars, maintaining cemeteries at 23,000 locations around the world.

But since September 2019, the UK has only designated 93 wrecks as war graves; none of these sites are provided with permanent monitoring or surveillance.

Desecration of war graves

Laws alone have failed to prevent the growing threat to our maritime archaeological heritage.

In 2016, divers discovered that three Dutch WWII wrecks HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HNLMS Kortenaer had been illegally removed. The three warships were sunk in 1942 during the Battle of the Java Sea and lay in Indonesian territorial waters until being desecrated, likely for their steel.

A similar fate has befallen the ships of Force Z. The UK government has confirmed that the wrecks of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse have been severely damaged, despite their protected status as war graves. The ships were sunk during a Japanese air attack off the east coast of Malaysia in December 1941 with the loss of 840 sailors.

Meanwhile, the wreck of the destroyer HMS Exeter and a US submarine have both vanished, while HMS Tien Kwang, HMS Kuala, HMS Banka, and SS Loch Ranza have all recently been targeted by thieves for their metal.

Persistent monitoring for illegal activity, oil discharge, and hazardous materials

Sunken warships also pose substantial risks to life - both for recreational divers and illegal salvage hunters alike, as well as the marine environment, local ecosystems, food chains, economies, and communities.

This is in part because many 20th-century wrecks still have their fuel tanks and possible pollutants intact, while military vessels regularly contain unexploded ordnance ranging from bullets to bombs.

Solutions need to not only provide safety, security, and environmental monitoring but must be capable of providing long endurance and sufficient sensor data to deliver real-time situational awareness.

USVs provide a solution to deliver long endurance monitoring of protected sites

Cost is of course the major barrier to continual monitoring of our oceans. The CWGC receives just under £65 million in funding, insufficient to employ guard vessels to stand watch over the existing 93 designated wreck sites, let alone the hundreds of others deserving of protection.

The simplest and most cost-effective solution is deploying uncrewed surface vessels (USVs), which can be operated and monitored remotely from anywhere in the world. The AO Guard vessel offers long endurance SSE capabilities at a fraction of the cost of a manned vessel.

And importantly, AO USVs can be deployed on multi-mission projects, for instance providing surveillance over a shipwreck, at the same time as collecting ocean and weather data for scientists and offering safety at sea service.

If we are to protect these important parts of our maritime heritage we will need to develop new business models and solutions to deliver not only cost-effective but meaningful technology solutions. Laws are pointless if no one is around to enforce them.


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