Legal experts: Conflict in outer space will happen

Legal experts: Conflict in outer space will happen

Woomera Test Range, South Australia
Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence
An effort to create a manual on law governing space conflict is named for the Woomera Test Range in South Australia

The University of Nebraska College of Law is joining forces with space and military law experts from Australia and the United Kingdom to take the lead on understanding how our Earth-bound laws will be applied in times of armed conflict in outer space.

Some of the best legal and policy minds at the University of Adelaide, UNSW Canberra, University of Exeter and Nebraska Law will draft the definitive document on military and security law as applied to space.

The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations is to be completed in 2020. It will draw on the knowledge of dozens of legal and space operations experts from around the world.

The founding leaders of the Woomera Manual are: Melissa de Zwart and Dale Stephens, of the University of Adelaide; Rob McLaughlin of UNSW Canberra; Michael Schmitt of the University of Exeter; and Jack Beard, of Nebraska's Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program.

"Conflict in outer space is not a case of 'if' but 'when,'” said de Zwart, dean of the Adelaide Law School. “However, the legal regime that governs the use of force and actual armed conflict in outer space is currently very unclear, which is why the Woomera Manual is needed.

"The few international treaties that deal with outer space provide very little regulation of modern space activities, including both military and commercial uses of space. Therefore, we need to cast our gaze more widely in our approach to determining what laws are applicable in space."

Rob McLaughlin, professor of military and security law at UNSW Canberra, described space as a key enabler for communications, surveillance, early warning and navigation systems, making it a critical security and conflict domain.

"Such extensive use of space by military forces has produced a growing awareness that space-based assets are becoming particularly vulnerable to adverse actions by potential competitors," he said.

U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson declared in 2017 that the United States must start to prepare for the possibility of armed conflict in outer space. And, Pres. Donald Trump recently made a call for a dedicated U.S. military space force.

"We can no longer afford to ignore the legal implications of the military use of space," said Michael Schmitt, professor of public international law at Exeter Law School. "The four universities who form the founding partnership of the Woomera Manual project are committed to developing an agreed understanding, and then subsequent articulation, of how international law more generally applies to regulate military space activities in a time of rising tension and even outright armed conflict."

Jack Beard, associate professor at Nebraska Law, said the Woomera Manual will be drafted in the full tradition of other manuals that have been developed by legal and policy experts over the last 20 years, including the San Remo Manual on Naval Warfare, the Harvard Manual on Air and Missile Warfare, and the Tallinn Manuals (1.0 and 2.0) dealing with laws applicable to cyber operations and warfare.

"Such manuals have proven to have a significant impact in their respective fields, and we envisage that the Woomera Manual will have the same impact for the military uses of space," Beard said.

The manual is named after the Woomera township in South Australia, which has a long association with both Australian and multi-national military space operations. In 1967, Woomera was the site from which Australia successfully launched its first satellite, becoming only the fourth nation in the world to do so. In Australian Indigenous culture, a "woomera" is a traditional spearthrowing device. The name "woomera" originates from the Dharug language of the Eora people.