New Intercross Series: Why Outer Space Matters

Visual estimation of objects in low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

Visual estimation of objects in low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

Rob Ramey is Deputy Legal Advisor in the ICRC's Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada. Rob advises the delegation on legal and policy matters related to the mission of the ICRC, including the legal regulation of armed conflicts in all combat domains. Rob has published on space law and has advanced degrees in international law and national security strategy. He, along with Laurent Gisel, the ICRC's file holder in Geneva responsible for conduct of hostilities questions under IHL globally, recently participated in the Inaugural Plenary of the MILAMOS Project.  The Project aims to develop a widely-accepted manual clarifying the fundamental rules applicable to the military use of outer space, in times of peace, as well as in periods of tension and in armed conflict.  Here Rob introduces the latest Intercross Series, Why Outer Space Matters. 

Intercross readers may be most familiar with outer space as it is depicted in the movies.  Have you seen Matt Damon escaping Martian gravity in THE MARTIAN?  Or consider Chris Pine’s STAR TREK warp drive order, “Punch it Scotty!”  What about the cascading effects of orbital debris on George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY?  And my favorite: INTERSTELLAR’s event horizon at the black hole witnessed by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.  These Hollywood depictions are all, to some extent, based in reality. And they certainly raise questions about what the space environment looks like and what human activity could occur there.

But what does occur in outer space and why does it matter? We thought it would be a good time to explore these questions.  Last week, I attended a gathering of experts convened to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS).  MILAMOS is of great interest as it will attempt to capture those legal principles that restrain actors in conducting military space operations throughout the spectrum of conflict.  Whatever other outcomes the initiative generates, it will contribute to a conversation about norms of behavior in space, and will likely carry implications for civil and commercial space activity, not just military.

To coincide with this launch event, Intercross is hosting a series of posts over the coming weeks related to these questions.  Our next two posts will explore (1) how humanitarian actors use space, and (2) what threats might exist now and in the future that could undermine reliance on space for humanitarian action (and other pursuits).  Then, we’ll explore (3) the international legal regime governing outer space activities specifically, and (4) the international legal regime, focusing on international humanitarian law (IHL), governing state and non-state activity during armed conflict.  During this last post, we are looking forward to hearing from the MILAMOS editor-in-chief who will provide an overview of IHL and the initiative’s work in general, but also anticipate some of the issues with which the Manual will deal, including providing an account of the relationship between “space law,” which governs military activity in space, and IHL, which also governs military activity in space. 

Believe it or not, a whole lot happens in space on which most people depend but about which they have no idea.  The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center tracks roughly 20,000 space objects 10 cm or larger, of which almost 1,500 are functioning satellites.  Satellites in multiple orbital planes, elevations ranging from a few hundred kilometers to 36,000 km, and moving at different incredible velocities conduct all kinds of missions.  The mission(s) for which a satellite is designed often determines the best orbit in which it should operate. In the early days of space development, these missions were largely military.  However, as access to space has become cheaper, more private civilian applications have entered the picture.  And, some applications originally devoted to the military have been opened for civilian use, perhaps the best well known of which is the Global Positioning System (GPS). 

For its part, the ICRC cares about outer space for at least two reasons.  First, our field and HQ personnel depend on space systems to conduct day-to-day humanitarian work.  For just three examples, consider (a) communications, (b) navigation, and (c) imaging. 

In order to communicate in austere environments—almost by definition where the ICRC focuses its field work—many of our delegates use THURAYA, INMARSAT or IRIDIUM satellite phones.  Or in order to relay data messages and internet signals, our personnel rely on systems that transmit via satellite ground antennae owned by the ICRC, which might be pointed toward any number of satellite constellations.  In addition, even our reliance on “landline” telephony, or High Frequency radios, often depends on the transmission of signals via space systems, or at least thru the ionosphere that are propagated around the world.  The need to communicate extends not only to our individual delegates and hundreds of delegation, mission, and office locations globally, but also to our larger-scale fleet operations involving cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes.  In many cases, our communications rely on space systems where a domestic backbone is either non-existent or less reliable.  Degradation of any of these systems, intentional or not, could undermine our ability to communicate.  In such cases, we would activate redundant systems and would continue to operate; but not without some impacts.

As for much of the world, the ICRC depends on navigation signals it might receive from the GPS or Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) constellations.  For all the same actors mentioned above, which includes our water and habitation engineers, armed forces or detention delegates, weapons contamination experts, and health care personnel, the ICRC needs to keep track of where they all operate.  And as with our communications capabilities, our navigation aids assist fleet operations as well.  As compared to past decades, space-based navigation systems can offer a measure of precision that facilitates more efficient humanitarian action. 

As for Earth imaging, our Geographic Information System (GIS), civilian protection, and economic security experts might need to create maps of ongoing ICRC activity or of vulnerable population groups.  Images might also reveal distressed agricultural conditions, impacts on water supplies, the results of battle damage in urban areas, or even certain atrocities committed during armed conflict.  While some of this imagery could come from the air, the ICRC depends primarily on imagery derived from space systems.  These might come from the Landsat constellation or Terra satellite.  Or, if a higher resolution is warranted, the ICRC might rely on Airbus’ Pleiades satellites or the DigitalGlobe constellation.  The ICRC purpose determines how clear the image must be, but for certain demanding applications the ICRC might need to purchase high resolution imagery down to .3 meters (that is, imagery for which each pixel represents .3 meters on the ground). 

A second reason outer space matters to the ICRC is because in the context of armed conflict IHL applies to combat operations of the parties to the conflict occurring in, from, to, and thru outer space.  Given the ICRC mandate to “work for the understanding and dissemination of knowledge of international humanitarian law…” the organization advocates for the faithful application of IHL to military operations everywhere, including those involving outer space.  If, for example, a military operation targets a satellite in some way, is it clear that the satellite constitutes a “military objective?”  If not, IHL prohibits the attack.  If the attack is expected to cause damage to civilian objects in space (or elsewhere), will such damage be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated?  If so, IHL prohibits it.  Has the attack employed all feasible precautions to avoid and minimize incidental damage to civilian objects in space (or elsewhere)?  If not, IHL prohibits it.  We will explore these ideas in greater detail in our forthcoming IHL post, which will further illustrate the ICRC’s interest in space operations conducted during times of armed conflict.

We invite you to watch this page for our upcoming posts, and to let us know what you think!

Schedule of blog posts:

This blog series comes out of the October 2016 Inaugural Plenary of the MILAMOS Project in Montreal, Canada sponsored by the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law (CRASL), the University of Adelaide's Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics (RUMLAE). The ICRC participated in the plenary as an Institutional Contributer.


Rob Ramey

Rob Ramey is Deputy Legal Advisor in the ICRC's Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada. Rob advises the delegation on legal and policy matters related to the mission of the ICRC, including the legal regulation of armed conflicts in all combat domains.  Rob has published on space law and has advanced degrees in international law and national security strategy