5 mins read 10 Sep 2020

The Woomera Manual - Updating Space Laws

As nations, commercial operators and military players start to gain further access to space - the topic of space law becomes an important discussion point for all stakeholders. Now, Australian Universities are working with international participants to update the legislation.

As the chances of armed conflict in space grow, a new legal guide to space warfare is reaching its final stages.

The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations will clarify what existing laws – some of them decades old – mean for extra-terrestrial hostilities.

Professor Melissa de Zwart, Dean of the University of Adelaide’s Law School, is also a director of the project. She says the bulk of the work has been done, but there’s a growing sense of urgency to find some clarity around space operations.

Russia has recently tested an anti-satellite weapon, while the Pentagon this week warned that China was building an arsenal of anti-satellite technology. Last year, India did its own anti-satellite tests, raising concerns about its intentions as well as the debris the test put into orbit.

United States President Donald Trump has announced the formation of the US Space Force, another arm of the military.

Australia is also investing heavily in space capabilities, both through governments and commercially.  

Space is getting busier with military, civilian and commercial operations, and those behind The Woomera Manual warn of high tensions, and flashpoints that could lead to hostilities.

Credit: University of Adelaide.

Australian universities have joined with US and UK institutions to pull together the new rulebook, named after the military and aerospace test site in outback South Australia.

If you watched the ABC’s Four Corners episode The New Space Age, you will have heard the claim that there are “no rules around conflict in space”. But that’s not strictly true. There are treaties – but there have also been huge changes in how states use space, and plenty of grey areas around what would constitute an aggressive act.

It is true that, as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s space analyst Malcolm Davis warned, space is now contested. “It’s not this serene, peaceful sanctuary that sits untouched by terrestrial geopolitics,” he said.

“It’s a warfighting domain where you have major powers like China and Russia developing counter-space capability, anti-satellite weapons designed to deny the United States and its allies – including Australia – access to critical space support in a future conflict.”

A common refrain is that space is now “contested, congested, and competitive”.

There are warnings about space terrorism, space piracy, and targeted attacks that could cripple nations’ earthly abilities by denying access to satellite data.

Prof de Zwart says the Manual’s contributors (the founding members from the University of Exeter, the University of Nebraska College of Law and the University of New South Wales  in Canberra have joined with groups from all over the world), had a final drafting meeting in February, while further global meetings have been cancelled because of COVID-19. But they are working hard to publish the manual next year.

“The bulk of the work has now been done. With so many people contributing to it, we’re now pulling it all together in one consolidated voice,” she said. “We’ve got state engagement now lined up for early next year.”

The Manual will clarify existing laws, then states can work out what that means for them, because space activities are moving so fast many interactions have not yet been tested legally.

“I feel like the space industry is just growing exponentially and certainly there’s a sense of urgency to get things articulated as quickly as possible,” Prof de Zwart said. As well as military conflict, there are conflicting views over environmental considerations, such as responsibility for space junk.

The Outer Space Treaty, which was mostly negotiated by the US, Russia and the United Kingdom in the febrile atmosphere of the Space Race, came into law in 1967, after the Russian satellite Sputnik was launched and before the US landed on the Moon.

It basically said there should be peace in space, that exploration should be “the province of all mankind” (so it’s clearly outdated).

Nations couldn’t claim space, shouldn’t contaminate space or celestial bodies, and definitely shouldn’t “place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner”, it stated. There are four other treaties negotiated around the same time, but again, they’re now dated and tend to focus on peaceful use of space, and international cooperation.

Now, in Space 2.0, it’s not clear if or how those treaties will hold.

In an example of how world powers are prepared for increasing aggression, newly appointed US Space Command chief General James H. Dickinson said just two weeks ago that USSPACECOM’s objective was to deter conflict, but:

“Should deterrence fail, our imperative is clear: we will win. To do so, we will require a space warfighting culture that permeates our entire command,” he said.


Video Credit: The University of Adelaide.