Outer space plays a vital role in every person’s daily life—from sending a text message, to hearing a broadcast on the radio, to swiping a credit card. However, terrestrial warfare is also dependent on space. So, if one country interferes with another country’s satellites, does this constitute an act of hostility that can be countered with further aggression?
The answer is that we don’t know. The newly formed Manual on International Law Applicable to the Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) Project seeks to answer this question, among many others.
Its mission: “To develop […] a manual that objectively articulates and clarifies existing international law applicable to military uses of outer space, including the conduct of hostilities in outer space and military activities in periods of tension.”
The world’s most powerful countries rely on space in some form for almost everything; tampering with a country’s satellite capacity would have a large scale impact on not only civilians, but also the communication capacities of the country and its military. The MILAMOS project aims to ease tensions between countries by creating guidelines on military conduct in space; once they are created, countries will be less likely to cross them. Although the chance of war breaking out in space are uncertain, the manual is focused on the uses of space for terrestrial warfare. According to those working on the project, the MILAMOS is needed and pertinent now because the frequent and increasingly modern wars on Earth. Presently, countries have no clear guidelines and boundaries when it comes to law in space.
“We are not drafting a treaty, neither a national legislation,” Associate Professor Ram Jakhu, chairman of the project and associate director of the Centre for Research of Air and Space Law at McGill University, said. “It becomes somewhat of an authoritative statement.”
Jakhu hopes that nations will refer to either the whole manual or parts of it to make international decisions.
Before the MILAMOS project, there were few laws and regulations written about warfare and the law of conflict, notable exceptions include the Oxford Manual of the Laws of War on Land of 1880 and the Geneva Conventions, which were established after the Second World War. The Geneva Conventions produced regulations on what can be targeted in war. For example, hospitals and schools cannot be bombed lawfully because they are occupied by civilians, whereas a bridge used for military purposes could.
Throughout the Cold War, military technology continued to advance, but countries were slow to write new treaties; consequently, experts from many different fields began coming together to write manuals. In 1994, the San Remo Manual set guidelines about international law applicable to war at sea. In 2009, the Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University published the Manual of International Law Applicable to Air and Missile Warfare. It established how to apply the Geneva Conventions to new, more advanced military technologies. The 2014 Tallinn Manual outlines the laws of cyber warfare—how can an “attack” be defined if it is virtual? The Tallinn Manual produced an agreed upon series of rules accompanied by commentary from the experts’ discussion, an endeavour the MILAMOS aims to replicate.
Currently, very little has been published about international law and outer space. This inspired Duncan Blake, deputy editor-in-chief of the MILAMOS, to write his Master’s thesis on whether or not the creation of a manual like the MILAMOS is vital to modern society.
“A manual on space warfare and the military uses of space was an obvious next step,” Blake said. “[The thesis focused on] whether or not there are dangers of warfare in outer space, and, absolutely, there are.”
Practically every week, there is news of the development of anti-satellite missiles, and other technologies that could be used in an offensive manner in outer space. This manual would be helpful for states trying to stay on the right side of these boundaries, but also for those looking to cross them directly.
Blake worked to advertise this project to a variety of institutions to get funding. McGill Professor Ram Jakhu and the Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics at the University of Adelaide ultimately supported the needed funding and pushed this manual into action. Although McGill University and the University of Adelaide are spearheading the project, this is not exclusively undertaken by Western nations.
The MILAMOS project represents a diverse body of experts. While many manuals have historically been formulated by white men, this project brings together experts from all over the world—the US, Japan, China, Nigeria, and many European countries—including 31 per cent of female participation. With an extensive array of political views and expertise—such as law, astronomy, military warfare, and technical engineering—the manual will be representative of a huge diversity of people with one goal: Developing solid international laws applicable to the military uses of outer space.
With a diverse assortment of people, comes the likely probability of disagreement in coming to an agreement about specific laws. Dr. Cassandra Steer, executive director of Women in International Security Canada and executive director of the Centre for Research on Air and Space Law, predicts that there will be a few main points of contention.
First, defining what “the use of force” signifies in terms of space will be a challenge, as there is little previous international precedent for what this means. One goal of MILAMOS is to define when it is justified to retaliate using force.
“Article 2.4 of the UN Charter states that you can’t randomly use force on a state, but you can defend yourself if attacked,” Steer explained. “So, can we conclude that satellite interference, not destruction, is something that would invoke a retaliatory attack in self-defence with force?”
Defining the three main principles of the Law of Armed Conflict—distinction, proportionality, and precaution in attack—as they relate to space will be another significant challenge. For example, it is unlawful to attack civilians, whereas it is lawful to attack a military target. In space, however, if a satellite is attacked, what would the consequences be if it were used for both military and civilian purposes? Another example involves proportionality: If GPS satellites were attacks and planes could no longer fly causing airport shutdowns, what category would it fall under?
“Coming up with these 150-200 rules will take time [,… especially to include] the rationales for each [rule] and other commentary,” Blake said.
The MILAMOS project hopes to be completed and released to the public in three years. While there are post-doctorate and masters candidates at McGill involved, Jakhu explained the number is selective and controlled.
Ultimately, the MILAMOS is being written in order to ease tensions between international superpowers and to prevent the occurrence of conflicts in space by creating boundaries. If clear lines are drawn, fewer countries are likely to cross them. The goal of this project is not to tell countries how to wage war in space, nor is it to encourage a real-life Star Wars.
“This project is not just fiction and theories in any way [….] It’s a collection of views and determination of what the law is,” Jakhu said. “It’s more than academic. It’s something real and practical.”