Space Law Manual Seeks to Regulate Star Wars

A definitive document to regulate military and security law in space is being drafted by experts from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Some of the best legal and policy minds at the University of Adelaide, UNSW Canberra, University of Exeter, and University of Nebraska College of Law will draft The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations.

The project will be completed in 2020 and 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 professors Melissa de Zwart, Dale Stephens (Adelaide), Rob McLaughlin (UNSW Canberra), Michael Schmitt (Exeter), and Jack Beard (Nebraska Law).

“Conflict in outer space is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’,” said founding partner de Zwart, from the University of Adelaide.

“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,” she said. “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.”

The Woomera Manual is named after the Woomera township in outback South Australia, which has a long association with both Australian and multi-national military space operations including NASA. 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.

The University of Adelaide played a key role in the launch of Australia’s first satellite from Woomera in 1967. The Woomera Manual project again puts the university at the international forefront of space research.

McLaughlin, who teaches Military and Security Law at UNSW Canberra, said space was a key enabler for communications, surveillance, early warning and navigation systems, and was 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 last year that the country must start to prepare for the possibility of armed conflict in outer space. President Trump also has 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 Schmitt, who teaches international law at the University of Exeter. “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.”

Beard, who teaches law at the University of Nebraska College, said The Woomera Manual would be drafted in the full tradition of other manuals developed by legal and policy experts over the past 20 years such as 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.

Australia was also involved with the formation of the original Outer Space Treaty (OST), which was established in 1967 to provide a framework and principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space.

The South Australian capital Adelaide hosted the International Astronautical Congress in September, where a working group of delegates from Australia and across the globe met to develop and propose a set of supplementary protocols to the OST, in order to adapt global space governance to the needs of the next 50 years.

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