In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Ocean Exploration and its Engineering Challenges
September 18, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 3
This issue is dedicated to the engineering methods used to enhance understanding of the world’s oceans.

Ocean Engineering and National Uses of the Sea: The Long View

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Author: Don Walsh

Ocean engineering is an interdisciplinary field (like oceanography) that can be defined as the application of all engineering arts and sciences to ocean-related problems. Present use of the term “sea power” often implies only military uses. But in strategic maritime thought from the late 1800s on, the term was meant to describe all national uses of ocean space. In this paper sea power refers to how a country uses the World Ocean as an instrument of national policy. I explain that uses of the sea can be best understood as a system of synchronized, somewhat overlapping efforts governed by a singular ocean policy.

Ocean Engineering: An Old-New Interdisciplinary Field

Ocean-related engineering began with the first port and coastal engineering works in the 8th century BCE. Thereafter the extension of terrestrial engineering skills sufficed to meet requirements in the “wet space.”

Naval architecture was perhaps the earliest wholly ocean-related engineering discipline. Over hundreds of years, ship design and construction led to more efficient vessels for military and commercial uses. Some of that engineering was quite advanced. For example, Polynesian and Micronesian wayfinders (navigators) roamed the vast expanses of Oceania for thousands of years in voyaging canoes designed to take advantage of prevailing winds. And the global voyages of Admiral Zheng He (1371–1435) in the Ming Dynasty employed a large fleet of sailing vessels with up to nine masts and a displacement of nearly 2,000 tons.

During the 19th century steam-powered ships replaced sail-powered ones, and a new discipline, marine engineering, evolved to design and build the machinery and systems needed. By the early 1960s diverse ocean technologies were advancing more rapidly than the maximum effort during World War II. The field of ocean engineering emerged to incorporate these developments—and to support national uses of the sea.

Four Aspects of Uses of the Sea

The term “uses of the sea” requires some clarification and definition. A simplistic but useful description entails four overlapping categories of activities: ocean sciences, ocean engineering, economics and public -policy, and manmade constraints.

Ocean Sciences

Oceanography uses chemical, biological, geological, and physical science disciplines to do research in the oceans. The first formal oceanography expedition was in -1872–76, when the Royal Navy’s HMS -Challenger circum-navigated the globe making scientific observations and collecting physical samples. Modern researchers occasionally still use some of the Challenger collections of data, imagery, and physical samples.

The primary output of oceanography is knowledge and research that can be applied to uses of the World Ocean. Research has revealed the location, quality, and quantity of fish stocks; informed management guidance for beneficial conservation programs; enhanced knowledge of subsea floor geological structures associated with hydrocarbons and mining opportunities; and increased understanding of marine weather as it affects both coastal areas and the safe operation of ships at sea.

Ocean Engineering

Ocean engineering involves the application of almost all the engineering disciplines to uses of the sea. Here the engineering arts and sciences develop the equipment and machines to do work in the sea, with a vital feedback link to oceanographic activities through the development of better equipment for doing marine science. Ocean engineering is the critical link between scientific knowledge and application of that knowledge to work in the sea.

Economics and Public Policy

Economics and public policy determine whether the work being done is useful. The economic test is simple: Can the work produce a profit? Can something be done in or on the sea to develop or support a successful commercial enterprise?

The public policy test is a bit imprecise. A navy is the best example: The government considers that operating a navy is useful and vital to maintain national security.

As another example, in some less developed countries the government may set up and support a national fishing industry because there is insufficient private capital to do this. Ultimately the government can sell the industry to the people operating it and, as it becomes self-sustaining, it may become a commercial business. The government’s public policy first determined that the work at sea was useful.

Manmade Constraints

This category is different from the rather precise scientific, technological, and economic determinism of the others. Manmade constraints include the Law of the Sea (see below), domestic political processes, and traditions as well as cultural and ethnic factors. These may take priority over the other categories because they can be very difficult to resolve and require longer-term consideration.

Perhaps political processes are the greatest impediment. Lack of a governing public policy and chronic underfunding have negative consequences for the creation of a robust sea power. The capacity for science and technology activities in and on the sea is greater than the capability for governing and funding them. There is a gap of 10–15 years between a slow-moving government process and the ability of science and technology to study and exploit the marine environment.

For optimal ocean management, the critical path is in the political and policy areas as well as the allocation of sufficient funding.

Ocean Policy: The Governing Factor

Larger, and often more developed, countries have the scientific and technical means to exploit their uses of the sea, and a challenge for major maritime states (i.e., users of the sea) is how to coordinate their various elements of national sea power to avoid deficiencies and duplication. The larger the nation the more complex these problems.

Role of a National Ocean Policy

High-level coordination is essential to ensure that the best interests of the state are served rather than those of various government ministries and/or the private sector. Of equal importance is that governments provide sufficient funding to make sure that sea power activities can be realized. The central vehicle for national coordination is a national ocean policy.

Yet, while land issues tend to be considered in a comprehensive way within and among states, attention to ocean issues tends to remain ad hoc and dispersed. The oceans are a relatively homogeneous medium shared by all nations who wish to use them, and many uses conflict with others. For these reasons addressing ocean problems by reaction rather than by thoughtful planning is wasteful—in terms of resources, missed opportunities, and misunderstandings among states.

Almost all major national and international issues more often than not have some sea power aspects, most of which concern multiple uses of the sea (e.g., by the navy, merchant marine, fisheries). An effective national ocean policy would permit the thoughtful integration of ocean issues into the business of statesmanship. But this simple concept of relating ocean policy to foreign policy seems to have eluded the leadership and parliaments of most states.

About the only clear example of contemporary centralized planning and direction of national ocean interests is the People’s Republic of China, a phenomenon that is less than three decades old. China has not been a great sea power since the global voyages of Admiral He, but the country’s commitment will certainly lead to a more effective, competitive exercise of sea power in a world where such planning is the exception.

For an analogous understanding of the situation, consider what US relations with other nations might be like if they were conducted entirely by the Department of State without coordination with other departments, Congress, and private entities. The result would be a vastly deficient foreign policy. Yet this is the situation in uses of the sea today. It is a matter of some concern that the dozen or so major maritime powers fail to recognize the liabilities in not dealing with ocean issues in an organized way.

What’s needed are general principles to guide a coherent, practical national plan for the oceans. Table 1 presents the national values, related ocean interests, and issues that illustrate why an integrated national ocean plan is vital for maritime nations that wish to exercise their inherent sea power rights.

Table 1 

Almost all major maritime nations have established some form of ocean policy framework, though activity within those frameworks varies widely. Some plans are “paper-intense,” with “fair words but few deeds,” while others have resulted in institutional changes with clear outcomes.

One key to success is the government level of program oversight: The closer to the top, the better the chance of success. For example, in Korea and Canada the ocean agencies are headed by a minister of the government, so ocean issues “have a seat at the high table” in governance decisions. In contrast, US national ocean policy developments are a story of nearly a half-century of plans, policies, and ultimate failure to act.

50-Year Survey of US Ocean Policy

The first major US effort to improve the government’s coordination and development for the national ocean interest was a two-year study (1967–69) by the US Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and Resources (the Stratton Commission). The study resulted in the 10-volume Our Nation and the Sea,[1] which still offers much guidance for the coordination and support of the nation’s ocean programs. One major recommendation was the creation of a National Oceanic and -Atmospheric Agency [sic]; NOAA was established in 1970.

But very few of the commission’s many other recommendations were adopted, and some of those initially adopted were later cancelled. An example is the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA), established in 1971 and made up of experts appointed by the president with the concurrence of Congress. Studies conducted by NACOA were provided directly to the president and Congress without the intervention of any other agency. The committee provided high-level and welcome advice to the leadership of the nation, but lack of interest and budget issues resulted in NACOA’s termination in 1986.

Some frustrated ocean policy experts today (humorously) suggest that most of the Stratton Report would be valid now by simply changing the dates on the original.

In 2000 the president created the US Commission on National Ocean Policy to conduct a wide-ranging study of ways the nation could better develop and govern its ocean interests. At the same time, the privately -funded Pew Oceans Commission undertook a similar effort. Both studies used the Stratton Commission’s work as a reference. The two final reports in 2005 were the basis for the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative that con-tinues to serve as an advisory group.

In 2010 the president created the first official US ocean policy. It was intended to deal with ocean matters in a holistic way, interactively involving state, regional, and local governments. In many ways it was a national consensus plan. But the Congress was of the opposite political party and there was little the president could get done other than by executive order.

This all changed again in 2018 when the next presidential administration revoked the existing national ocean policy plan and issued its own. The new plan favors the extractive industries, especially offshore oil and gas production. The former plan balanced ocean conservation with sustainable resource development; that balance is missing from the new ocean plan, which hardly mentions conservation—including major concerns such as plastics in the ocean, ocean acidification, and sea level rise.

Actually, it is not the contents of an ocean policy but rather the policymaking mechanism that determines success. In Congress, ocean affairs are scattered among several committees (more so in the House than the Senate). Given the current combination of an uninterested presidential administration, 12 federal departments with ocean-related responsibilities,[2] and the lack of a legislative home in Congress, it is very unlikely that any acceptable ocean policy will be implemented and funded. In addition, for over two decades the Senate has not voted its “advice and consent” approval for the United States to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (box 1). This means the nation will continue to have greatly reduced influence in the global shaping of a broad spectrum of ocean activities.

Box 1 

Historically the United States has been a major sea power. With a unified ocean policy framework in place, there would be a more productive national effort in the World Ocean.

The Way Ahead

A major role of government is to invest in far horizon activities that are either necessary for national security or not feasible for private enterprise. Oceanography is big science and requires an extensive and expensive infrastructure. It requires a certain level of effort and cannot be done on the cheap.

Various experts have estimated that only 10–15 percent of the World Ocean has been fully explored, yet there is no sense of urgency to organize a massive international effort to explore the rest. Considering the enormous costs in time and treasure (billions of dollars) for this global exploration, no one nation can do it all. The United States should be a leader in the effort but it is excluded from many opportunities (e.g., by not being a signatory to the UN Law of the Sea treaty). And at a time when there are stated national plans to return to the Moon and land humans on Mars, one has to ask, Shouldn’t we be doing our own planet first?

A fully funded national ocean initiative that recognizes the magnitude of the task must remain a goal in the hope of a better situation in the future. Those of us in the ocean community must persevere, although the history of the past five decades suggests that this may remain a distant dream.


The author thanks Bridge Managing Editor Cameron Fletcher for a superb job of editing and helping to shape this contribution.

[1]  US Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and -Resources. 1969. Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action. Washington: US Government Printing Office.

[2]  For example, NASA is a major sponsor of ocean sciences as they relate to its space missions and in 1989 started a program called Mission to Planet Earth. While it has done excellent scientific work with Earth remote sensing, this should be just one element of a national ocean program.

About the Author:Don Walsh (NAE) is president of International Maritime Incorporated.