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Military Space Operations


This chapter examines the international legal framework governing military space operations. In the chapter, ‘military space operations’ are understood as sequences of co-ordinated actions with a defined purpose, which are of a military character and have a material nexus to outer space. On the basis of this definition, the chapter then analyses issues raised by each of the principal bodies of international law that regulate military uses of outer space, starting with international space law, followed by the international law on the use of force and international humanitarian law. The chapter concludes by considering several overarching questions and the possible future development of the law in this area.


  • Armed conflict
  • international humanitarian law
  • military operations
  • outer space
  • satellites
  • space law
  • UN Charter
  • use of force

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  1. 1.

    Anson and Cummings 1991.

  2. 2.

    Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar, ‘India shot down a satellite, Modi says, shifting balance of power in Asia’, New York Times (27 March 2019).

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    Nathan Strout, ‘Russian satellite creeps up to Intelsat satellite—again’, C4ISRNET (3 September 2019).

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    Florence Parly, ‘Présentation de la stratégie spatiale de défense’ (25 July 2019) <>. Accessed 30 September 2019.

  5. 5.

    Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) <>.

  6. 6.

    The Woomera Manual <>. Accessed 30 September 2019. The author is a core expert.

  7. 7.

    San Remo Manual 1995.

  8. 8.

    AMW Manual 2013.

  9. 9.

    Tallinn Manual 2017.

  10. 10.

    See Stephens 2018, at 96‒99.

  11. 11.

    Lipson and Katzenbach 1961, at 806.

  12. 12.

    See 1974 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 1023 UNTS 15 (hereinafter Registration Convention), Article II.

  13. 13.

    But see text to note 127 below (suggesting that the registration of objects used exclusively for civilian purposes as such is a possible passive precaution under IHL).

  14. 14.

    Lyall and Larsen 2017, at 153.

  15. 15.

    Australia, Space Activities Act 1998, sect. 8; Denmark, Outer Space Act 2016, sect. 4(4); Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Space Activities 2012, Sect. (6).

  16. 16.

    See further UN COPUOS, Historical Summary on the Consideration of the Question on the Definition and Delimitation of Outer Space: Report of the Secretariat, UN Doc A/AC.105/769 (18 January 2002).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., AMW Manual 2013, rule 1(a).

  18. 18.

    See, e.g., U.S. Statement, Definition and Delimitation of Outer Space and the Character and Utilization of the Geostationary Orbit (2001) <>. Accessed 30 September 2019.

  19. 19.

    Sandoz et al 1987, para. 152.

  20. 20.

    ICRC, Third Expert Meeting on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Geneva, 23‒25 October 2005 Summary Report <> at 18–19.

  21. 21.

    NATO Standard AJP-3, Allied Joint Doctrine for the Conduct of Operations (February 2019), point 1.4.

  22. 22.

    cf Blake 2014, at 108–111 (adopting a similar classification in the context of space weapons).

  23. 23.

    See, e.g., text to note 3 above.

  24. 24.

    See, e.g., National Research Council 2012, at 37–38.

  25. 25.

    See, e.g., text to note 2 above.

  26. 26.

    See, e.g., Shaw 1999, at 23 (noting that ‘the ICBM was the first weapon designed to travel into and through space’).

  27. 27.

    See, e.g., Lyall and Larsen 2017, at 2.

  28. 28.

    1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 610 UNTS 205 (hereinafter Outer Space Treaty).

  29. 29.

    1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched Into Outer Space, 672 UNTS 119 (hereinafter Rescue and Return Agreement).

  30. 30.

    1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 961 UNTS 187.

  31. 31.

    Registration Convention.

  32. 32.

    1979 Agreement governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1363 UNTS 3.

  33. 33.

    Diederiks-Verschoor and Kopal 2008, at 9‒12.

  34. 34.

    Similarly Meyer 1968, at 27; Bridge 1980, at 658; Schmitt 2006a, at 101; Stephens and Steer 2015, at 74; Tronchetti 2015, at 339; Borgen 2021, section II.B.2; contra Vlasic 1981, at 26.

  35. 35.

    Tronchetti 2015, at 338‒340; see also Yearbook of the United Nations 1966, at 39‒40.

  36. 36.

    Ramey 2000, at 127; Maogoto and Freeland 2007, at 1105; Schmitt 2006a, at 102.

  37. 37.

    See, e.g., King and Blank 2019, at 125‒127; but see Borgen 2021, section II.B.2 (suggesting that if ‘activities in space [continue to] expand …, an increasingly crowded and congested environment of space may, in the future, challenge the permissive reading of “peaceful purposes”’).

  38. 38.

    Schrogl and Neumann 2009, para. 1.

  39. 39.

    Strydom 2017, para. 2; Schrogl and Neumann 2009, paras. 24‒25.

  40. 40.

    Schrogl and Neumann 2009, para. 27.

  41. 41.

    Murrey Marder, ‘Orbital bomb rationalizing jolts officials’, Washington Post (5 November 1967), at A14.

  42. 42.

    Ibid. (emphasis added).

  43. 43.

    See Ramey 2000, at 84 fn 355; see also Jasentuliyana and Lee 1979, at 14 (arguing that this interpretation reflects ‘the clear intention of the drafters’).

  44. 44.

    See, e.g., U.S. Department of Defense, Law of War Manual (rev ed Dec 2016) (hereinafter DoD Manual), para.

  45. 45.

    See, e.g., Schrogl and Neumann 2009, para. 30 (arguing that ‘in orbit’ means ‘in a state of being or moving in an orbit’, which thus includes the placement of objects that follow only a section of a full orbit).

  46. 46.

    See Outer Space Treaty, Articles I-III, V-VII, IX-XI, XIII (using the phrase ‘outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies’); see also ibid, Article V (using the phrase ‘activities in outer space and on celestial bodies’).

  47. 47.

    See Yearbook of the United Nations 1966, at 39 (noting that during the drafting process of the Outer Space Treaty, a number of States ‘expressed regret that, according to the draft treaty, only the celestial bodies were to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and that this requirement was not applicable generally to outer space’); see also Christol 1982, at 20; Schrogl and Neumann 2009, para. 42.

  48. 48.

    Lachs 1972, at 21; Hansen 2015, at 28; Borgen 2021, section II.B.1.

  49. 49.

    See, e.g., DoD Manual, para. (excluding rules that ‘apply only in certain geographical locations (such as a State’s own territory), and thus might not create obligations applicable to a State’s activities in outer space’).

  50. 50.

    See further Stephens 2018.

  51. 51.

    See, e.g., Freeland and Jakhu 2016, at 228.

  52. 52.

    See, e.g., ILC, Draft Articles on the Effects of Armed Conflicts on Treaties, with Commentaries, Yearbook of the ILC, 2011, vol. II, Part Two, Article 2, commentary para. 4.

  53. 53.

    See Happold 2012, at 464; Stephens 2018, at 91; Borgen 2021, section II.B.1.

  54. 54.

    Koskenniemi 2006, para. 56.

  55. 55.

    Sassòli and Olson 2008, at 604 (internal quotation marks and footnote omitted).

  56. 56.

    1945 Charter of the United Nations, 1 UNTS XVI (hereinafter UN Charter), Article 2(4) (‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’).

  57. 57.

    See Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, ICJ, Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996 (hereinafter Nuclear Weapons), para. 38.

  58. 58.

    Similarly Bridge 1980, at 659; Hansen 2015, at 48; Tronchetti 2015, at 350.

  59. 59.

    Nuclear Weapons, para. 39.

  60. 60.

    See UN General Assembly 2001 Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts with Commentaries, UN Doc. A/56/10 (hereinafter Articles on State Responsibility), Articles 22 and 49–54.

  61. 61.

    Russia and China, Draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, UN Doc. CD/1839 (29 February 2008), Article I(e).

  62. 62.

    United States, Analysis of a Draft “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, or the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects”, UN Doc. CD/1847 (26 August 2008), para. 5(i) (emphasis original).

  63. 63.

    Russia and China, Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, UN Doc. CD/1985 (12 June 2014), Article I(d).

  64. 64.

    Nuclear Weapons, para. 47.

  65. 65.

    See, e.g., UN Doc. S/PV.3438 (15 October 1994), at 11 (United Kingdom)

  66. 66.

    Cf. ICJ, Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Merits), Judgment, [1986] ICJ Rep 14 (hereinafter Nicaragua), para. 227 (holding that the mere existence of military manoeuvres near another State’s borders does not constitute a threat of force).

  67. 67.

    Tallinn Manual 2.0 2017, rule 70, commentary para. 4.

  68. 68.

    But see Maogoto and Freeland 2007, at 1111 (‘mere deployment of [anti-satellite] weaponry can amount to the threat of the use of force, particularly where space weaponry is hoisted to the same orbital plane as another state’s space assets’).

  69. 69.

    Cf. Tallinn Manual 2.0 2017, rule 70, commentary para. 4.

  70. 70.

    UN Charter, Article 51.

  71. 71.

    See, e.g., DoD Manual, para.

  72. 72.

    Nicaragua, para. 191.

  73. 73.

    Ibid, para. 195; see also, e.g., ICJ, Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, [2004] ICJ Rep 136, Separate Opinion of Judge Higgins, para. 33; ICJ, Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, [2005] ICJ Rep 168 (hereinafter Armed Activities), Separate Opinion of Judge Kooijmans, para. 29.

  74. 74.

    Nicaragua, para. 176; Nuclear Weapons, para. 41; ICJ, Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America), Judgment, [2003] ICJ Rep 161 (hereinafter Oil Platforms), para. 76; Armed Activities, para. 147.

  75. 75.

    Cf. Oil Platforms, para. 73 (‘the requirement of international law that measures taken avowedly in self-defence must have been necessary for that purpose is strict and objective, leaving no room for any “measure of discretion”’).

  76. 76.

    Cf. Tallinn Manual 2.0 2017, rule 72, commentary para. 3.

  77. 77.

    ILC, Addendum: Eighth Report on State Responsibility by Mr. Roberto Ago, Special Rapporteur, UN Doc. A/CN.4/318/Add.5-7, para. 121; Nuclear Weapons, Dissenting Opinion of Judge Higgins, para. 5.

  78. 78.

    Cf. Oil Platforms, para. 77 (noting that the destruction of several naval vessels and aircraft by the US was disproportionate to the mining of a single US warship).

  79. 79.

    Cf. Nolte and Randelzhofer 2012, para. 57 (noting that lawful self-defence ‘must not acquire a retaliatory, deterrent, or punitive character’).

  80. 80.

    See, e.g., Sassòli 2019, para. 1.01.

  81. 81.

    See, e.g., Vermeer 2007, at 74; Freeland 2015, at 102; Boothby 2014, at 224.

  82. 82.

    UN Doc. A/AC.105/PV.3 (7 May 1962), at 63 (India).

  83. 83.

    CDDH/III/SR.11, at 86, para. 9 (Baxter).

  84. 84.

    See further Mačák 2018.

  85. 85.

    See text to note 48 above.

  86. 86.

    Similarly Stephens and Steer 2015, at 11; ICRC 2019, at 33.

  87. 87.

    See also 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 1125 UNTS 3 (hereinafter AP I), preamble (reaffirming that the provisions of the Conventions and of the Protocol ‘must be fully applied in all circumstances’) and Article 1(1) (extending the obligation to respect and to ensure respect for IHL in all circumstances to the provisions of the Protocol).

  88. 88.

    ICRC Customary IHL Study 2005 (hereafter ICRC Customary IHL Study), Volume I, rule 139; Nicaragua, para. 220.

  89. 89.

    Mačák 2018, at 15 and 21; see also Hathaway et al. 2017, at 576 (interpreting the phrase as meaning that the obligations to which it applies ‘do not have a geographic or temporal threshold’).

  90. 90.

    See also ICRC 2019, at 33 (‘IHL applies to any military operations conducted as part of an armed conflict, including those occurring in outer space’).

  91. 91.

    See ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume I, in particular rules 1, 7, 14, 15, and 22.

  92. 92.

    AP I, Article 48.

  93. 93.

    AP I, Article 51(3).

  94. 94.

    AP I, Article 43.

  95. 95.

    AP I, Article 41(1); see also AP I, Article 41(2) (defining persons hors de combat as those who are in the power of the adversary; those who clearly express an intention to surrender; and those who are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, and thus incapable of defending themselves).

  96. 96.

    Outer Space Treaty, Article V(1); see also Rescue and Return Agreement, Article 2.

  97. 97.

    Mačák 2018, at 30.

  98. 98.

    Ibid., at 31.

  99. 99.

    AP I, Article 52(2).

  100. 100.

    DoD Manual, para.

  101. 101.

    Ecuador, Naval Manual 1989, para. 8.1.1, cited in ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume II(1), at 183.

  102. 102.

    Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, Partial Award, Western Front, Aerial Bombardment and Related Claims, Eritrea’s Claims 1, 3, 5, 9–13, 14, 21, 25 and 26 (2005) 26 RIAA 291, para. 121.

  103. 103.

    See, e.g., Bourbonnière 2004; Watkin 2014; Goodman 2016.

  104. 104.

    Bourbonnière 2004, at 61.

  105. 105.

    Cf. Stephens and Steer 2015, at 92‒93.

  106. 106.

    Dinstein 2016, at 109.

  107. 107.

    Crawford 2017, at 60 fn 49.

  108. 108.

    San Remo Manual 1995, para. 60.11; AMW Manual 2013, rule 24, commentary para. 2; Tallinn Manual 2.0 2017, rule 100, commentary para. 19.

  109. 109.

    See, e.g., Schmitt 2006b, at 281; Oeter 2013, at 113; Jachec-Neale 2014, at 108–109 and 254; Dinstein 2016, at 109; Boothby 2019, at 177.

  110. 110.

    AP I, Articles 51(5) (b) and 57(2)(a)(iii).

  111. 111.

    Oeter 2013, at 197.

  112. 112.

    AP I, Article 52(2).

  113. 113.

    AMW Manual 2013, rule 1(l), commentary para. 5; Tallinn Manual 2.0 2017, rule 113, commentary para. 5.

  114. 114.

    See also ICRC 2019, at 34 (noting that ‘disabling the civilian functions of satellites could disrupt large segments of modern-day societies, especially if they support safety-critical civilian activities and essential civilian services on earth’).

  115. 115.

    Weeden 2012, at 1.

  116. 116.

    India, Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Frequently asked questions on Mission Shakti’ (27 March 2019) <>. Accessed 30 September 2019.

  117. 117.

    Jeff Foust, ‘NASA warns Indian anti-satellite test increased debris risk to ISS’ Space News (2 April 2019) <>. Accessed 30 September 2019.

  118. 118.

    AP I, Article 57(2)(a)(iii); ICTY, Prosecutor v Galić, Judgement (Trial Chamber), 5 December 2003, Case No. IT-98-29-T, para. 58.

  119. 119.

    ICRC 2015, at 42, 52.

  120. 120.

    Guymon 2014, at 737.

  121. 121.

    Compare AMW Manual 2013, rule 14, commentary para. 6 (arguing that ‘expected’ means that the ‘outcome is probable, i.e. more likely than not’) with Robinson and Nohle 2016, at 118 (arguing that ‘expected’ means that the outcome ‘is likely to occur rather than more likely than not’).

  122. 122.

    AP I, Article 57(1); ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume I, rule 15, first sentence.

  123. 123.

    AP I, Article 57(2) (a) (ii); ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume I, rule 15, second sentence.

  124. 124.

    Hansen 2015, at 58–59; Stephens and Steer 2015, at 29.

  125. 125.

    AP I, Article 58(c); ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume I, rule 22.

  126. 126.

    Cf. ICRC Customary IHL Study, Volume I, at 70-71.

  127. 127.

    Cf. DoD Manual, para. 5.14.4 (considering that the use of distinctive and visible signs to identify protected objects as such is a possible passive precaution).

  128. 128.

    Section 19.3.2 above.

  129. 129.

    Section 19.4.1 above.

  130. 130.

    Section 19.5.1 above.


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Mačák, K. (2022). Military Space Operations. In: Sayapin, S., Atadjanov, R., Kadam, U., Kemp, G., Zambrana-Tévar, N., Quénivet, N. (eds) International Conflict and Security Law. T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague.

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  • Publisher Name: T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague

  • Print ISBN: 978-94-6265-514-0

  • Online ISBN: 978-94-6265-515-7

  • eBook Packages: Law and CriminologyLaw and Criminology (R0)