The Intersection of Marine Science and Military Operations: The Complex Legal and Regulatory Frameworks

The world’s oceans remain one of the few frontiers where scientific exploration and military activities coexist, often intersecting in complex ways. As marine research advances our understanding of the ocean’s ecosystems and resources, military forces leverage these waters for strategic purposes like maritime security, naval operations, and surveillance. This convergence raises intricate legal and regulatory questions regarding jurisdiction, environmental protection, and the balance between scientific inquiry and national defense interests.

International Maritime Law: A Delicate Balance

The primary legal framework governing activities in international waters is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by 168 countries (United Nations, 1994). UNCLOS delineates coastal state jurisdiction over territorial seas, establishes exclusive economic zones (EEZs) for resource exploitation up to 200 nautical miles offshore, and sets forth regulations for activities on the high seas.

While UNCLOS affirms the freedom of scientific research in maritime zones beyond national jurisdiction, it also acknowledges the right of coastal states to regulate marine scientific research in their EEZs and on their continental shelves (Article 238). This provision aims to balance the interests of the global scientific community with the sovereign rights of coastal nations over their maritime resources (Kerr, 2020). However, the convention lacks explicit guidance on the intersection with military activities, leading to potential conflicts.

Military Operations and Environmental Regulations

Certain provisions of UNCLOS, such as Articles 192 and 194, impose a general obligation on states to protect and preserve the marine environment. This duty extends to activities under their jurisdiction or control, including military operations (Stephens, 2019). Consequently, naval forces must comply with various international and domestic environmental regulations when conducting exercises or deploying equipment that could impact marine ecosystems.

For instance, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention) prohibits the deliberate disposal of certain hazardous materials, including munitions, at sea (International Maritime Organization, 1972). Additionally, the International Maritime Organization’s Ballast Water Management Convention aims to prevent the spread of invasive aquatic species through the release of ships’ ballast water (International Maritime Organization, 2004).

While these conventions aim to safeguard marine environments, their application to military activities remains a contested area. Some nations invoke national security exceptions or assert that certain operations are exempt from environmental regulations due to their unique nature and operational requirements (Mensah, 2020).

Maritime Scientific Research and Dual-Use Technologies

The convergence of marine science and military operations is further complicated by the potential dual-use nature of certain technologies and research findings. Advances in areas like underwater acoustics, remote sensing, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) can facilitate both civilian scientific exploration and military surveillance or weapon systems development.

This dual-use conundrum poses challenges for regulating the transfer and application of such technologies. The Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral export control regime, seeks to promote transparency and responsibility in the transfer of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies (Wassenaar Arrangement, 1996). However, its scope and efficacy in addressing marine science and technology remain debated.

Furthermore, concerns arise regarding the potential misuse of marine scientific research data for military purposes, particularly in strategically significant maritime regions. This issue underscores the need for robust data-sharing protocols and clear guidelines to prevent the exploitation of scientific knowledge for unintended militaristic ends (Harden-Davies, 2017).

Environmental Impact Assessments and Transparency

To address the potential environmental consequences of military activities, UNCLOS mandates that states conduct environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for planned activities under their jurisdiction or control that may cause substantial pollution or significant and harmful changes to the marine environment (Article 206).

While EIAs are well-established practice for civilian projects, their application to military operations remains inconsistent. National security concerns, operational secrecy, and the inherent unpredictability of armed conflicts often present obstacles to conducting comprehensive EIAs for military activities (Stephens, 2019).

Efforts to enhance transparency and information-sharing among stakeholders could help mitigate potential conflicts and facilitate more effective environmental protection measures. International organizations like the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO have advocated for increased dialogue and cooperation between the scientific community and military actors (Harden-Davies, 2017).


As marine science and military operations continue to intersect in the world’s oceans, navigating the complex legal and regulatory landscapes will be crucial for balancing scientific progress, environmental protection, and national security interests. While existing frameworks like UNCLOS and various environmental conventions provide a foundation, further clarification and consensus-building will be necessary to address emerging challenges.

Effective governance in this domain will require robust international cooperation, transparent information-sharing, and a commitment to upholding the principles of sustainable use and conservation of marine resources. By fostering dialogue and collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including the scientific community, military actors, policymakers, and civil society, a more harmonized and effective regulatory approach can be achieved, safeguarding the health of our oceans for generations to come.


Harden-Davies, H. (2017). Deep seabed resources: Increasing legal certainty for scientists researching in the area through a topical porthole. Marine Policy, 86, 286-296.

International Maritime Organization. (1972). Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter.

International Maritime Organization. (2004). International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments.’-Ballast-Water-and-Sediments-(BWM).aspx

Kerr, J. (2020). The Law of the Sea Convention: Prospects for Effectiveness. Marine Policy, 114, 103858.

Mensah, T. (2020). The Principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind and the Exploitation of Deep Seabed Resources. In P. G. G. Davies & A. Nollkaemper (Eds.), The Practice of Shared Responsibility in International Law (pp. 569-592). Cambridge University Press.

Stephens, T. (2019). Environmental Impact Assessments and the Regulation of Military Activities in Antarctica. In G. Alfredsson, T. Koivurova, & H. Ö. Sæþórsson (Eds.), Yearbook of Polar Law Online (Vol. 10, pp. 241-270). Brill.

United Nations. (1994). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Wassenaar Arrangement. (1996). The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies.

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