Offshore Wind Turbines in International Waters Raise Big Defense Issues

By James C. Sherlock

Courtesy U.S. Navy

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is unlikely to be expert in the diplomatic issues and defense vulnerabilities inherent in building wind turbine farms in international waters.

The DOI is, however, greatly concerned with “viewscape” – whether the turbine blades can be seen from shore.  By the wealthy who live there and those who visit.

DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which will issue or deny in March a construction permit to Dominion Energy to build its Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project in international waters, may understand the fact that the United States is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

They may or may not be aware that the U.S. has done more to enforce UNCLOS than any other nation on earth.

They may or may not fully understand that UNCLOS will severely constrain U.S. rights surrounding wind turbine projects in international waters in ways that will bedevil us constantly, drive up national defense costs and threaten the long-term viability of the projects.

If they do understand the implications, they may consider that the business of the Departments of Defense and State.

So do I.  Those two departments have dropped the ball.

DOI may not understand that all of those issues are greatly mitigated if the turbine farms are within 12 miles from the coast.  But DoD and State should.

And Congress should.

The House Armed Services Committee should hold hearings before the CVOW permit is approved.

Issues.  Dominion’s CVOW project, if built, will be in international waters, outside U.S. territorial seas which extend 12 miles from our coasts.

It therefore will not be protected by the rules governing innocent passage in territorial seas under UNCLOS Article 19.

Activities that in innocent passage are deemed prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state are prohibited there.  They are not proscribed in international waters.

I spent much of my adult life on aircraft carriers mindful of those laws.

We launched and recovered aircraft, dropped inert bombs, and used live ordnance to sink target ships towed into international waters for the purpose.  As battle groups we generally exercised the military power of the United States Navy in international waters.

CVOW will be within the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, but sovereignty around CVOW will extend only to 500 meters from the outermost towers.  So no help there.

Even in peacetime we can legally lay mines anywhere in international waters if those mines must be actively turned on and are safe until activated.

Those same rules apply to mines laid by foreign navies.

Sauce for the goose.

See how complicated this gets?

Mine Warfare in International Waters.  It is possible, and probably likely, that the United States Navy will, when able, defend wind turbine fields outside its territorial waters with antisubmarine mines.

The new edition of the U.S. Navy Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations Section 9.2.2 permits peacetime mining with mines that are harmless until activated.

Controllable mines may be emplaced in international waters (i.e., beyond the territorial sea) if they do not unreasonably interfere with other lawful uses of the oceans.

The determination of what constitutes an unreasonable interference involves a balancing of a number of factors, including the rationale for their emplacement (i.e., self-defense requirements of the emplacing nation), the extent of the area to be mined, the hazard (if any) to other lawful ocean uses, and the duration of their emplacement.

Because controllable mines do not constitute a hazard to navigation, international notice of their emplacement is not required.

But a May 2021 article in Naval Institute Proceedings was highly critical of the Navy’s mining capabilities.

the Navy continues to relegate mine warfare—mines, mining, and mine countermeasures—to a budgetary, strategic, and operational backwater.

Because CVOW is to be constructed in international waters, no other nation will have to give notice of minelaying either. The U.S. and potentially hostile nations will disagree on what constitutes an acceptable rationale for their emplacement.

From an expanded version of the USNI article:

Potential U.S. adversaries—from China and Russia to violent extremists—take advantage of the asymmetric value of mines, some quite sophisticated and lethal and others unsophisticated but still quite lethal. The global threat includes: Russia, anywhere from 125,000 to a million mines; upwards of 80,000 are in Chinese inventories; as many as 10,000 enhance North Korea’s navy; Iran has about 6,000; and unknown numbers are in terrorist hands. In June 2021, for example, Houthi rebels warned about “some hundreds of sea mines” laid in Red Sea and Arabian Sea ports and waterways..

Naval mines worldwide number about one million not counting U.S. stockpiles. Sixty nations have them.  More than 30 countries produce and 20 countries export them.

The mine that severely damaged the Aegis guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) in the Northern Persian Gulf during Desert Storm was made in Italy.

It wasn’t the only one. The damaged USS Tripoli (LPH-10) is seen below.



Even sophisticated torpedo mines are available in the international arms market. The U.S., in fact, sold MK-60 CAPTORS that we no longer use.  Torpedo mines will work against submarines or ships when activated.

But mines will work in offshore turbine fields for every nation whatever the target. Disrupting power for hundreds of thousands ashore will prove a tempting one.  More effective than sinking a ship.

U.S. mine clearing capabilities are in worse shape than our mine laying ones.  A robot anti-mine submarine is planned for the Littoral Combat Ships, which have been a disaster.  The Navy is decommissioning them as fast as it can.

Those capabilities were not sized to protect offshore wind farms.

Submarines.  As for potentially hostile submarines, under UNCLOS Article 20
 Submarines and other underwater vehicles,

In the territorial sea, submarines and other underwater vehicles are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag.

In international waters, those restrictions do not apply.

Exclusive Economic Zone.  American offshore wind farms in international waters will be within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) governed by UNCLOS Article 56 
Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone

1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has sovereign rights for the purpose of the production of energy from the water, currents and winds;
 (b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:
 (i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures;

UNCLOS Article 60 
Artificial islands, installations and structures in the exclusive economic zone

2. The coastal State shall have exclusive jurisdiction over such artificial islands, installations and structures, including jurisdiction with regard to
customs, fiscal, health, safety and immigration laws and regulations.

4. The coastal State may, where necessary, establish reasonable safety zones around such artificial islands, installations and structures in which it may take appropriate measures to ensure the safety both of navigation and of the artificial islands, installations and structures.

5. The breadth of the safety zones shall be determined by the coastal State, taking into account applicable international standards. Such zones shall be designed to ensure that they are reasonably related to the nature and function of the artificial islands, installations or structures, and shall not exceed a distance of 500 metres around them, measured from each point of their outer edge, except as authorized by generally accepted international standards or as recommended by the competent international organization. Due notice shall be given of the extent of safety zones.

6. All ships must respect these safety zones and shall comply with generally accepted international standards regarding navigation in the vicinity of artificial islands, installations, structures and safety zones.

8. Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.

So CVOW can have a 500 meter safety zone in which Dominion and the Navy may take “appropriate safety measures”.  Some of the more exotic defense concepts I have heard discussed by amateurs are not safety measures.

Bottom line. So, in international waters, we are left with

  1. our attack submarines against other submarines, in which we have the advantage if the numbers can be kept under control; and
  2. weak capabilities to clear mines that can destroy ships or turbine towers.

The Department of the Interior has put leasable areas in international waters for only one reason.  So that folks on the coasts will not have to see them.

I hold the Department of Defense and the Department of State responsible for this folly.  It is not their business to care about “viewscape.”

It is necessary to ask whether DoD and DoS have informed the Department of the Interior in no uncertain terms of the endless diplomatic and national defense problems they will buy with turbine fields in international waters.

And to ask why they did not veto the idea in the councils of government.

If we move the wind farms into territorial waters, we can aggressively defend them.  And, God willing, we will move them away from high value shore installations and ports.

Away from the mouth to the Chesapeake Bay and the approaches to the world’s largest naval base.

That reference, for the benefit of the DOI leadership, is to the home of the United States Atlantic Fleet.

So, move the wind farms inside of 12 miles.

If a potentially hostile sub shows up submerged, sink it.  If a minelayer shows up, blow it out of the water.  Problem solved.

Maybe the House Armed Services Committee will get it.



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36 responses to “Offshore Wind Turbines in International Waters Raise Big Defense Issues”

  1. Fascinating. However the proposed OSW phase 1 array is something like 10 by 15 miles in size so does not all fit within 12 miles, especially with an equally big phase 2. Also the main migration route of the severely endangered Right Whales is right around there. Most sightings are within 15 miles of the shore.

    Here is an interesting fact. Phase 1 alone is roughly twice as big (in total MW and turbine size) as the world’s biggest existing system — Hornsea 2 which just fired up.

    This is the nutjob policy: “Let’s build something twice as big as ever before, where never before done, and see how it goes.”

    The solution is to not build the damn things.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Then DOI, DoD and the Coast Guard will need to redesign the field, in another spot, to be not square, but rectangular, to fit.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Whatsamtta, you forgot Empire State? WTC? Sears Tower? Oh, that’s right! Americans are small thinkers now.

      More interesting is it’s 12×15 miles to accommodate 180 mills spaced at a minimum of 5x their height (~500m)

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        You could make it a lot longer north/south and much shorter east/west to fit it in.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          You could make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…

  2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “The Department of the Interior has put leasable areas in international waters for only one reason. So that folks on the coasts will not have to see them.”

    A swing… and a miss…

    “A published 2017 report from Sage Policy Group has concluded that there is “little evidence of negative impact on property values…visitation, particularly when offshore wind turbines are located 4 miles or more from home,””

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      But he new ones will need to have their outer limits within 12 miles, won’t they.

      I can hear you breaking out the graph paper. Not your job. It’s the job of the Department of Interior in concert with the DoD and Coast Guard.

      Glad we share the same objectives.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        We don’t, my objective is to expose the flaws in the false arguments you create in pursuing your objective to undermine renewable energy resources.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Find one.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll


    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I, for one, finally think the Captain has hit his stride…

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Well, yes. That’s one of the Federal limits. Just three, and you can pump tanks.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      We’ll live with pumped tanks.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Wait’ll what I’ve got washes up on your lawn.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Remember The Future. NIMBYs Need Not Apply.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      If you close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears and scream, you need not notice the details.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “ We launched and recovered aircraft, strafed, dropped inert bombs, used live ordnance to sink target ships towed into international waters for the purpose. As battle groups we generally exercised the military power of the United States Navy in international waters.”

    So… you’re the guys who effed-up Vieques! And then denied it.

    BTW, we’ve lost more ships to mines than missiles. Ask Bob Hope.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      ” There are over 600 military sites that are superfund sites, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.”

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Which is WHY the DoD should button it’s lip when it comes to the environmental impact of OSW.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m thinking in THIS case the actual designated zones were already done through a programmatic NEPA process and what this is about is this specific one. There are other DEIS docs for other proposals off New York and other zones.

      I doubt they actually change the designated zones.

      On the west coat a few ears back there was a big military involvement in the zones and that got settled with the military agreeing to
      offshore wind zones.

      NEPA is primarily a disclosure doc that also requires alternatives including the no action.

      It’s only after an alternative is selected that legal challenges occur and they’re primarily against the permits like we see with the ACC and Mountain Valley pipeline.

      Not against NEPA, but against the Forest Service permits.

      And the only reason the opponents won was because the FS violated their own permit process.

      The process itself if done according to policy itself is seldom won in court.

      IOW, even if the process does not fully “protect” something, as long as it is written and codified as such, it’s a tougher thing that results in other laws brought into it.

      I have no doubt, that opponents, if they have the money, can slow down OSW just as opponents have the MVP. But it will take some big dollars.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Wonder if there were whales out there… ya know, beyond the environment where they were “dropping live ordinance.”

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          Those nice and quiet live ordinances, eh? I’ll bet BR Conservatives are just writing their hands with anxiety over the plight of the whales…

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Typical GOP. Only care about anything if it whips the ID-10Ts in their base.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Interesting. Being censored. Two links provided, one to list of military superfund sites, ya know, military environmental disaster areas and one concerning how oil and gas leases off Alaska drew one — count ‘em — ONE bid of $60K.

    The captain is both reliable and predictable.

    Arrrrghh,,, where’s Elon?!

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      If that means you think I am censoring you, I am not. Not my job,

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Somebody is. At least twice. Make it thrice. All “pending”

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          is this what you are getting: ” Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by Bacon’s Rebellion.”?

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            “ Nancy Naive

            James C. Sherlock

            6 hours ago


            So you say.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar


          3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            It was a misprint – should have read:

            “I’m sorry but my magic spreadsheet says you have reached your allotted 3 comments on this topic (which certainly does not apply to the author, of course)”

          4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Self-refuting. This is five for you, Eric.

            If you look above, except for David Wojick’s excellent, on-topic opening comment, every one is by you, Nancy and Larry with a few responses by the author, me, intermixed.

            And you guys feel censored. 🥲

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            Sherlock and company cannot discuss the issue except in an isolated / cherrypicking way and get butt hurt when the full context is brought in.

            And yep, Sherlock has advocated “limiting” comments because they bring in these other relevant issues that he does not want to talk about.

            And yep – someone on Sherlocks side has been messing with disqus to limit folks ability to reference links to back up their remarks.

            Not really surprising given the folks involved.

          6. The ability to link and post images has been restored. The temporary restrictions were accidental, due to my incompetence with Disqus, and nothing to do with a desire to “limit folks ability to reference links to back up their remarks.”

            You have revealed much about yourself with that insinuation.

          7. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I think it’s links. Switched devices. Don’t know why that would happen, but everything has changed with DisCuss and not for the better.

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