Legal Manual for Space Warfare
An international coalition of lawyers is to draft the first ever legal manual of space warfare, Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS).
The manual, which will set out the legal parameters for military uses of outer space, will provide guidance on issues such as the legality of attacking satellites and firing lasers from space in time of war. The manual will set out the legal framework for war crimes in space, including whether altering satellite images to suggest civilian objects are military targets, would be a war crime.
The manual is expected to set out the legal framework for the development of space-based weaponry, including lasers and missile defence systems. It is designed to be ‘future proof’ to take into account developments in space exploration and travel.
It will also examine responsibility for cleaning up space debris caused by military action, and whether the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war would apply in space.
Among the issues it is examining is:
- is a civilian-owned communications satellite that contains some transponders used exclusively by the military a permissible military objective which may be targeted in time of armed conflict?
- is an individual, who hacks into downloaded satellite imagery files to alter images of civilian objects to make them appear as military objectives, responsible for a war crime, if the civilian objects are later targeted and destroyed in a military operation?
- if a conflict party has a choice between a kinetic weapon and a directed-energy weapon, both of which are equally effective in neutralising a military objective, such as a military satellite in orbit, does the law require that party to opt for the latter weapon, given that using the former would create hazardous space debris?
The manual is also expected to examine the legality of using weapons in space, and whether military astronauts would be governed by laws designed for terrestrial combatants.
The rapid development of technology over the past few decades has led to an increasing reliance on space assets in times of international tensions and armed conflict. But international treaties governing the initiation and conduct of hostilities were drafted for terrestrial conflicts. Existing space law treaties adopted at the peak of the Cold War predominantly focus on peacetime exploration of outer space.
The MILAMOS Project aims to comprehensively address the resulting legal uncertainty. Experts will produce an authoritative statement of the law on military uses of outer space and indicate what limitations international law places on the threat or use of force in outer space. The Manual will define the scope of responsible behaviour even in times of conflict. It will assist States in the development of policy in this area.
The project joins a long line of non-governmental efforts to clarify the application of the law of armed conflict to contemporary reality, going back to the 1880 Oxford Manual on The Laws of War on Land. More recently, the 1995 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea, the 2009 Harvard Manual on International Law Applicable to Air and Missile Warfare, and the 2017 Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations demonstrate how international experts and engagement with governments have managed to produce documents that enjoy widespread recognition and authority.
Two years ago, the UN general assembly observed that the current legal regime was no guarantee that an arms race would be prevented in outer space and that there was a need to examine further means to prevent a “grave danger to international peace and security”.
But existing space law treaties adopted at the peak of the cold war focus predominantly on the peacetime exploration of outer space. These include the 1967 treaty on the principles governing the activities of states exploring and using outer space, and the 1968 agreement on the rescue and return of astronauts.
“At the moment, the rules of space law found in international treaties focus almost exclusively on the peaceful uses of outer space,” said Dr Kubo Mačák of the University of Exeter law school, which is one of the institutions tasked with drafting the manual. “But to what extent are states constrained by the law when it comes to their military activities in space? For example, what type of interference with a satellite in orbit amounts to an ‘armed attack’ which would trigger the right of the victim state to use force in self-defence against the attacker?”