Resource Wars

By Lieutenant Commander James Stavridis, U. S. Navy

On the complex, three-billion-dollar platform, an alarm sounds. The men pause in their work on the drills and conveyors. Over the horizon appears a fast-moving group of hydrofoils (PHMs) , and the tension among the miners is apparent. The sensing and evaluation system in the mining command and control center pauses and checks the approaching force. Seconds later, an all-clear signal is flashed throughout the various stations.

The group of ships is a small squadron of U. S. Navy PHMs, operating with logistic support from a larger vessel. It is merely a customary patrol checkpoint for the Pacific Resource Protection Squadron, passing through the deposit areas under U. S. mining control.

Their mission is a new one for the U. S. Navy, but one that has become increasingly vital in the 21st century. They are charged with protecting U. S. strategic mining stations on the high seas, as well as the sea lines of communication between the stations and the offshore processing stations within U. S. territorial waters. After an exchange of signals between the miners and the squadron, the naval force departs, certain that the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is operating freely.

In the not-too-distant future, the Navy will add another mission to its current list of taskings, a mission that will evolve in what many experts are calling the ocean age. The mission will be protection of ocean resource-gathering operations conducted in three key locations: the deep seabed under the high seas, the actual waters of the high seas themselves, and the continental shelf of the offshore exclusive economic zone. Each of these areas offers different resources and challenges.

As nations turn increasingly to the seas to supplement their land-based sources of fuel, food, renewable energy, and space, confrontations will inevitably erupt. Consequently, the United States must form a national maritime strategy, derived from a well-conceived national ocean policy.

The Resources: In a world of finite sources for most materials and energies, some basic strategic minerals and supplies of hydrocarbon fuels (crude oil and natural gas) will have to be procured to maintain consistent economic growth in the United States. Access to the supplies must be reliable and risk-free to ensure orderly growth. Inthe mid- and long-term future, the ocean offers the best hope of obtaining such assured, reliable sources.

Perhaps the most publicized ocean mineral resources are the manganese nodules scattered throughout the ocean floors. Containing heavy concentrations of manganese, as well as iron, nickel, copper, and cobalt, they can be harvested from the ocean floor by a variety of mining techniques. There are several specific locations thought to be the most commercially feasible areas, most of which are under the high seas, that is, beyond 200 nautical miles from the coasts of any sovereign state. Table 1 shows the total U. S. imports of minerals and metals, the percentage of imports, and their industrial uses. Table 2 shows the current suppliers of the materials to the United States.


Table 1: Strategic Minerals


Total U.S. Imports* (thousand tons)

% Imports of Use (1982)

Industrial Uses




Basic steel production




Alloys, electrical equipment




Electrical equipment




Jet engines, alloys

*Figures represent 1978-82 imports for consumption. Source: U.S. Bureau of Mines



Table 2: U.S. Import Suppliers



% Imported





South Africa









South Africa














Source: U.S. Bureau of Mines

Cobalt and manganese, in particular, have vital strategic uses in high-technology and basic steel production. Supplier countries include such politically unstable nations as Zaire, Zambia, South Africa, Gabon, and the Soviet Union. The United States has tried to create strategic stockpiles of the materials in order to buffer the industrial base from the volatile prices and supply fluctuations, but the currently improving world economy may signal a return to the demand problems of the late 1970s.

Only four deep seabed mining stations would be required to supply a steady, secure source of manganese and cobalt, as well as provide a large amount of nickel and copper for industrial use. Such stations would exploit the ocean floor under the high seas, using advanced mining techniques to effect the recovery of the seabed nodules.

A second mineral source beginning to receive more attention recently is polymetallic sulfides, which are major deposits of minerals and metals found clustered around high-temperature zones near rifts in the earth's crust under the ocean. One such area is the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast of Oregon and Washington, which has yielded deposits of zinc, iron, copper, lead, silver, and cadmium. Further research will be necessary to exploit fully the potential of these deposits, but they represent another potential source of important minerals and metals located under the high seas.

The recovery of hydrocarbons in the offshore region is an ongoing operation that is producing a significant portion of U. S. energy today. Most industry analysts believe that 60% of the remaining U.S. hydrocarbon reserves are located in the offshore region, that is, within 200 nautical miles of the coast. Some observers believe that as underwater drilling and exploration become more sophisticated, operations will eventually reach into the seabed under the high seas. This is clearly the thrust of most of the advanced research being conducted by the oil companies today. Eventually, there is little doubt that the bulk of the world's hydrocarbons will be recovered from deep seabed installations. Currently, however, the need for protection of hydrocarbon installations at sea remains within the coastal regions of the country. The sea-based portion of U. S. hydrocarbons is expected to reach more than 50% by the turn of the century.

Naturally, the protection of such offshore oil and natural gas installations will fall within the purview of the U.S. Coast Guard and national enforcement authorities. Yet, the U. S. Navy might be forced to undertake some ancillary tasking in the offshore region at some future point. As the drilling moves further out to sea, such protection will fall increasingly under the aegis of U. S. naval forces. This could be as early as the turn of the century.

A second category of ocean resources is that of living protein. The recovery of living resources from the oceans will increase in the mid- and long-term future. Protein recovered from fishing currently constitutes a fairly small percentage of U. S. consumption, although confrontations with long-distance fishing fleets of the Soviet Union, Po land, Japan, and other major fishing powers have occurred in recent years. As advanced fishing technology depletes other global regions, there might be increased incursions into the exclusive fishing zones of the United States that could require military response. This is currently assigned to the U. S. Coast Guard and related agencies of the federal government.

If the United States turns to more sophisticated protein recovery platforms, such as the floating fishing and processing factories similar to the Soviet Union's, there will be increased oceanic competition for living resources. Deep water recovery by U. S. stations might require naval protection, particularly if a strained international maritime environment continues to be the norm.

Likewise, recovery of energy from the ocean in the future will probably entail systems to gather power from tides, currents, salinity gradient differentials, and ocean thermal bands. If these are set up in high seas regions, as is probable, protection or patrol might be a naval mission. Finally, offshore artificial islands could possibly be constructed to support nuclear power plants, toxic waste processing stations, deep seabed mining refineries, hydrocarbon refineries, or deep water ports for transferring dangerous industrial cargoes. Perhaps the ultimate resource of the oceans is the space they could provide for an expanding population and industrial base.

In a recently released study, two European scientists hypothesize that there will be fully functioning habitats on the ocean floor by the second decade of the 21st century, equipped to recover hydrocarbons, ocean energy, protein, and minerals. This territorial extension will require naval protection in an uncertain maritime legal environment.

Clearly, the oceans will provide an increasing array of resources to the world in the coming decades. Obviously, the timing of such enterprises will fluctuate depending on many variables, including depletion of land-based mineral, metal, and hydrocarbon sources, industrial growth, population expansion, trade-offs demanded by society between the environment and growth, political shifts, and many other considerations.

Once again, the resources available in the oceans in the immediate future will be located in the offshore/exclusive economic zone, that is 200 nautical miles from the coast. Protection and monitoring for these areas should fall to the U. S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and various law enforcement agencies. Exploration and exploitation will, however, eventually move outward toward the deep ocean. At that time, the Navy will find itself with a new mission: protecting and monitoring such enterprises.

The Law of the Sea Treaty: It is impossible to discuss the emergence of national maritime strategy and new naval missions on the oceans without mentioning the Law of the Sea (LOS) Treaty. This complex document, negotiated over nearly ten years, was opened for signature in Jamaica in December 1982. More than 130 countries have signed it, signaling at least an intention to consider ratification of the agreement. To date, the treaty has been ratified by eleven countries. The LOS Treaty codifies a host of laws concerning the oceans, some traditional and others wholly new. Included are regulations dealing with the continental shelf, the exclusive economic zone, the territorial seas, the delimitation, of maritime boundaries, dispute resolution, pollution, fishing, technology transfer, and virtually every category of ocean use.

The most important and controversial sections, for the purposes of this discussion, deal with the mining of the deep seabed. The treaty establishes a new international organization, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to control and license mining of the ocean floor under a collective system. The basic philosophic thrust of the mining sections is that the resources of the deep seabed represent a "common heritage" for all mankind. The ISA's supposed role is to regulate the mining of the deep seabed to benefit all nations, particularly those of the Third World.

The Reagan administration rejected the treaty after a year-long review and cited the deep seabed mining provisions as a primary stumbling block to U. S. participation in the accord. In the statement released declaring America's exclusive economic zone, President Ronald Reagan reinforced the U. S. policy on open mining: "Deep seabed mining remains a lawful exercise of the freedom of the high seas open to all nations."

The U. S. rejection of the treaty has angered many countries, particularly Third World nations, which view the U. S. adherence to traditional "high seas" freedoms as signifying a desire to mine where it pleases. In an era where tensions between the developing and industrial nations are always high, the LOS Treaty rejected by the United States provides an opportunity for confrontation over the issue of deep seabed mining sites. America's traditional frontier mentality of mining (the "high seas" approach) has collided with the developing world's desire to protect the deep seabed by collective action (the "common heritage").

At the final session of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in March-April 1982 in New York, some representatives from developing countries spoke darkly about withholding transit rights from countries (such as the United States) that refused to sign the treaty. Although an overt attack on U. S. facilities is difficult to imagine today, such installations might be subject to harassment, terrorism, or sabotage. It is possible to envision scenarios where even more violent confrontations might occur, particularly if relations with developing countries continue to deteriorate in the years to come. As unstable, anti-Western countries (Libya, Cuba, etc.) improve their military capabilities, the possibility for an attack against such vulnerable outposts increases.

None of this suggests that the United States is headed for a unilateral, inevitable confrontation with the rest of the world on the high seas. The United States is not a lawless regime unto itself—far from it. Many of America's strongest allies, including the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, and others, have refused to accept the treaty and are exploring alternate "mini-treaties." According to international law, a country is perfectly within its sovereign rights to refuse to sign any treaty, regardless of the consensus of world opinion.

Certain countries with an anti-Western bias, however, might attempt to use the U. S. noninvolvement in the treaty to justify harassing U. S. ocean users. In addition, the Soviet Union might one day strike at U. S. ocean resource activities. For these eventualities, the U. S. Navy must be prepared. As U. S. national policy places more importance on the oceans as resource basins, the Navy must be prepared to act in support of the national interest.

Mission and Threats: In coming decades, increased levels of basic resources will be gathered from the sea. These operations will probably be undertaken by private enterprise operating under a frontier approach to the high seas, the deep seabed, and the offshore areas. There will probably be some simple form of claim-staking and exploitation with a minimum of U. S. Government control.

Just as a primary mission of the Army during the late 1800s was protection of continental resource-gathering on the American frontier, the late 1900s and the next century may hold a critical naval mission of resource protection in support of a national ocean policy. If a new form of manifest destiny takes U. S. interests to the ocean frontier, the Navy will most likely provide much of the order, given the current U. S. rejection of the LOS Treaty regime. The resource protection mission would fall under the U. S. Navy mission articulated by Title 10, U. S. Code—the conduct of prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. The Navy would provide protective patrol to the major resource-gathering stations, conduct actual defense if required, and ensure safe convoy operations between key resource installations and the U. S. mainland.

Again, this does not suggest a usurpation of U. S. Coast Guard missions by the Navy. The protection of U. S. oceanic resources will require a concerted effort at cooperation and coordination between the Navy and other agencies. The deep water aspects of the task, which will be increasingly critical, will fall to the Navy.

The threat to such gathering operations can be divided into three basic categories. The first would be a threat by a major maritime power with a strategic or tactical interest in destroying or subverting resource-gathering operations, either in the course of war or as a demonstration or signal. Such actions could include aerial attack, cruise missile strike, naval gunfire, or subsurface torpedo launches. Given the high cost of many of the resource installations (as high as three billion dollars in 1983 dollars), such strikes would be effective and risk-free if no defensive measures were in place.

A second category of threat might come from smaller powers either disgruntled over the allocation of profits from mining ventures or seeking to control markets in which developing countries sell raw materials. A nation with an overwhelming dependence on hydrocarbons or strategic minerals for income would not enjoy seeing major industrial powers become more energy self-sufficient, particularly when it might be possible to use the Law of the Sea Treaty as a justification for such attacks. The same types of weapons platforms as those mentioned in the first threat might be brought to bear against U. S. ocean installations.

A third form of threat is that posed by terrorism. The high cost and isolation of many of the mining platforms make them ideal targets for political fringe groups with complaints against "U. S. ocean imperialism." Such attacks might include mines, swimmer-implanted bombs, or handheld rockets fired from commercial craft.

Defense: The most vulnerable installations are immobile, isolated, expensive platforms exploiting the deep seabed. Offshore installations, though also tempting targets, are easier to defend and protect, and cooperation from the U. S. Coast Guard and civil authorities will be available. Indeed, these agencies will have primary protective responsibility for offshore installations, as they do today. The Navy will have its plate full with deep sea operations, in addition to its traditional roles and missions. The edge of the exclusive economic zone is the logical boundary for dividing primary responsibility between the two services.

Operations exploiting the oceans themselves (such as fishing) will be highly mobile and less likely to be attacked. They will also be less expensive operations in general. As discussed previously, the basic concepts of the resource protection mission will be protective patrol, defense if required, and safe convoy operations.

Tactics: In the protective patrol role, many decisions would have to be made based on the number and location of mining concerns, including their operating cycle and transport requirements. A small squadron of ships dedicated to resource protection would be necessary. This squadron might include a large station ship (a modified Spruance [DD-963]-class destroyer or Oliver Hazard Perry [FFG-7]-class frigate) centrally located in a region (such as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone) and some patrol vessels, such as PHMs. Grouped in squadrons of four to six ships, with a semi-permanent combatant/tender vessel, the hydrofoils would combine speed, agility, sea-keeping, and the offensive punch necessary for the patrol mission.

Currently armed with the Harpoon missile, a 65-nautical mile surface-to-surface weapon, and the high-speed Oto Melara gun, the vessel would provide strong protection from a wide variety of threats to mining and other resource-gathering operations. A small suite of anti-swimmer weapons or sensors could be added to the class. The PHM would also be a highly useful platform for protecting hydrocarbon installations in the immediate offshore areas.

The PHMs are small enough to operate out of any port where suitable supply support could be arranged, notably Honolulu, Hawaii; Long Beach, California; San Diego, California; or their current location in Key West, Florida. If resource operations were extended to the far reaches of the Pacific, Guam would be a good possibility for ocean coverage.

The location of many potential resource areas of the oceans opens the possibility of using naval units returning from forward deployment as convoy ships. The PHM resource patrol squadron could "hand off" major transports to incoming deployers during periods of high tension. Conventional convoy techniques would ensure the arrival of a high percentage of raw materials for the U. S. industrial base.

In a conventional, global confrontation with the Soviet Union, the availability of the ocean's raw materials (oil, strategic minerals and metals, protein, energy) might one day be critical. The protection of such installations from strike and harassment is a tactical problem the Navy has not yet considered.

Conclusions: The protection of resource-gathering operations from the ocean is not a mission the U.S. Navy will undertake in the next ten years. Before the end of this century, however, naval units may be solicited to perform protective patrol, resource convoying, and defensive warfighting in support of U. S. industrial needs for ocean resources. The need for this kind of mission may, of course, never actually arise. But the point is the oceans represent the most immediate frontier of mankind—what President John Kennedy called "inner space." There are increasingly critical resources at stake in the oceans—space, minerals and metals, energy, protein—and technology is bringing them ever closer to man's grasp. These are the building blocks of societies.

For the United States to continue to grow and maintain a high standard of living, U. S. rights on the ocean frontier must be protected. Although the emergence of an orderly ocean regime is possible, it appears less likely today. In the aftermath of the U. S. rejection of the LOS Treaty, than it did ten years ago. If international order cannot be brought to the oceans, protection for national operations must be undertaken.

This does not imply a lawless posture on the part of the United States, only a realistic approach to the difficulties of the international arena. Despite the best efforts to fashion an international regime that allows for peaceful ocean uses in accordance with traditional high seas freedoms, the possibility for disagreement and conflict is obvious.

As increasing numbers of nations arm themselves, the temptation to strike at U. S. ocean installations will mount. Protecting them will be a difficult mission. It isalso a mission that might well fall to an already over tasked U. S. Navy in the coming decades.

Commander Stavridis , a 1976 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, received his MA and PhD from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has served in the USS Hewitt (DD-966), USS Forrestal (CV-59), and the Strategic Concepts Group. He is currently the operations officer in the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). Commander Stavridis has won awards in both the GPEC and the Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Contest.


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