The manual will provide guidance on issues such as the legality of attacking satellites and firing lasers from space in time of war.

Rules for space warfare to be drawn up

An international coalition of lawyers is to draft the first ever legal manual of space warfare.

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.

International lawyers from the University of Exeter’s Law School are to join scientists, government representatives and academics to strengthen the rule of law in outer space – including celestial bodies and the moon.

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.

Exeter Law School has this month joined a consortium of founding institutions, including McGill University and the University of Adelaide, aiming to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS)

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.

Exeter Law School is recognised for its authority on the legal aspects of international security. Professor Michael N. Schmitt, general editor of the 2017 Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber operations, will serve as Exeter’s representative on the management board of the MILAMOS Project. Professor Hitoshi Nasu and Dr Kubo Mačák serve as core experts in the International Law on the Use of Force Group and the International Humanitarian Law Group, respectively. The project will further draw on the expertise of the University of Exeter's International Law Forum research group.

Dr Kubo Mačák of the University of Exeter Law School said: 

“Currently, rules of space law found in international treaties focus almost exclusively on peaceful uses of outer space. 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? Or imagine that two states are already engaged in an armed conflict and they want to target each other’s space assets in order to achieve a permissible military advantage. In that case, how much, if any, collateral damage does the law permit in space, where any explosion necessarily creates debris that may stay in orbit for decades or even centuries? For now, we have more questions than answers. However, the participation of legal and technical experts from around the world gives hope that the solutions we identify will gain global credibility and thus shape the policy and behaviour of space-faring states in the foreseeable future.”

The existing space law legal regime consists of five key international agreements: the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (‘Outer Space Treaty’); the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched Into Outer Space (‘Rescue and Return Agreement’); the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (‘Liability Convention’); the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (‘Registration Convention’); and the 1979 Agreement governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (‘Moon Agreement’).

But the existing treaty framework does not comprehensively address the issue of military uses of outer space.

The MILAMOS Project, which already includes experts from McGill University and the University of Adelaide, aims to respond to this need by developing a manual clarifying the fundamental rules applicable to such conduct in times of peace as well as in armed conflict.

Date: 22 May 2017