Woomera Test Range, South Australia. (Australia’s Department of Defence).

US 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. In June last year, US President Donald Trump ordered the US Department of Defence to immediately begin the process of developing a “Space Force”. Meanwhile, in August, US Vice-President Mike Pence outlined plans to create the Space Force, which is to be a new branch of the US military dedicated to fighting wars in space.

All this leads to the conclusion that in the future, space would be another theatre for war. University of New South Wales Canberra professors, Stephen Coleman and Nikki Coleman, both military ethicists, have looked at Trump’s Space Force concept.

“There are certainly arguments in favour of separating a Space Corps or Space Force from the other US military services; given how important space is in the modern military environment, it is important that resources intended for the protection of space assets are not diverted to other needs, as has allegedly occurred with the current system with the US Air Force taking responsibility for space,” they said.

“The biggest concern is that such a move risks an escalation of the risk of space war; unrestrained warfare in space could be disastrous for the entire planet, given that the debris produced through the destruction of satellites could render parts of Earth's orbit unusable for generations.”

It is that concern which has led space and military experts at four universities across three continents to collaborate on a project to better understand how current laws can be applied in times of armed conflict in outer space.

The four universities are University of Adelaide, UNSW Canberra, University of Exeter and University of Nebraska College of Law. Together, they will draft the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations, to be published by a major international publishing company. It is expected to be ready in 2020.

SPACE LAWS

“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, University of Exeter.

The Woomera Manual is designed to be a universally recognised objective statement of existing international law applicable to military space operations. It will be similar to other manuals developed by legal and policy experts on various topics over the past two decades. These include the San Remo Manual on Naval Warfare, the Harvard Manual on Air and Missile Warfare, and the Tallinn Manuals on 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," said Jack Beard, an associate professor at Nebraska College of Law.

The Woomera Manual is named after the Woomera township in South Australia, which has a long association with both Australian and multinational military space operations. In 1967, Woomera was the site from which Australia successfully launched its first satellite, WRESAT. This was significant because it made Australia only the fourth nation in the world to do so at that time. Woomera also served as a British, American, European and Australian centre for space operations throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The word Woomera comes from an Australian Aboriginal language called Dharug, used by the Eora people of the Sydney area. It refers to a traditional spear-throwing device. “Woomera” was chosen for the name of the rocket range because a key purpose of a “Woomera” was to enable much greater distance and accuracy in throwing a spear.

The impetus for creating the Woomera Manual is the likelihood of war happening in space. In fact, in some way it’s inevitable. Professor Melissa de Zwart, Dean of the Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide said at the launch of the project last April: “Conflict in outer space is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’. 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.”

A BETTER UNDERSTANDING

Rob McLaughlin, Professor of Military and Security Law at UNSW Canberra, said: “Space is a key enabler for communications, surveillance, early warning, navigation systems and is 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.”

The impact of a war in space goes beyond shooting down rockets and damage that can be done to satellites. It can impact the global financial system and cause chaos around the world.

“The technology for operations such as anti-satellite warfare or GPS jamming already exists,” said Elsbeth Magilton, executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Programmes at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said. “And a lot of people don't realise how our financial systems now depend on GPS — it's used to help authenticate transactions. If the space assets controlling GPS are taken out, that would bring financial markets to a halt.”

What good could a manual do? It could very well stave off big conflicts. A better understanding of how international laws on Earth could apply to space could be useful when negotiating and forging treaties to prevent space warfare from happening. “The goal is to deter such wars from happening in the first place, or to determine the most appropriate and proportional responses to any actions in space,” Magilton said.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].