When the billionaire’s satellite communications network, Starlink, was targeted by Russia, it opened a legit can of worms
Musk says his Starlink signal is getting jammed.
Around the same time, the head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, declared: “Turning any country’s satellites offline is really a cause for war.”
So, could the conflict between Musk’s commercial venture and Moscow’s military activities lead to escalation?
It depends, says space law expert Duncan Blake. Space is not lawless, they say. But it’s very messy. And it is a legal and ethical challenge that is particularly relevant given Australia’s accelerated civil-military space launch and satellite programme.
Like most legal cases, there are issues of degree, intent, and bodily harm.
International law is relatively clear in defining “armed attack”. It is based on the equivalent of a physical armed force seizing and holding a piece of strategic territory. Electronic warfare (signal jamming) and cyber warfare (hacking functions) can both cross that line.
“Hopefully neither the Russian nor anyone else missile warning is enough to interfere with satellites because that would send a very bad message,” Blake says. “Something like a Superbowl broadcast on the other end of the spectrum is interfering. It’s infuriating. It’s annoying. But it’s not an ‘armed attack.'”
Sure, @elonmusk. We are going to use them for Ukrainians also after our victory 😉— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) March 3, 2022
However, it will be subject to international treaties and agreements. The electronic spectrum is regulated. Cybercrime is a matter of national law. Both are inherently difficult to implement, says Blake, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the two.
An attack on a commercial Earth-observing or space-awareness satellite would inevitably be viewed as offensive. But disabling a military spy satellite could be considered an act of war.
So what if your satellite has both?
“Could it be a legitimate military target?” Blake asks. “Will it be legal to target this satellite? The answer is yes to the first, perhaps to the second.”
For example, the Optus C1 communications satellite has several relay nodes dedicated to Australian military use. Provides important communication links to the rest of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Under Article 52 of Protocol I in addition to the Geneva Convention, anything that through its nature, location, purpose or use provides for a significant military contribution, is a lawful war target.
But, Blake says, there are some conditions.
“If you’re going to target something, one caution that should be taken into account is the continued care of the civilian population. Another is whether there was another target that would have the same military advantage without the impact on the civilian population.” will receive.”
In a way, this is free QA haha— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 5, 2022
Musk is moving his Starlink ground stations to Ukraine’s front lines. They provide satellite broadband services directly to anyone who wishes to use them. This may be to seek humanitarian aid or medical aid. It could also be used to report Russian military movements.
“You can imagine situations where a test of what constitutes a valid target could be satisfied from a Russian perspective,” says Blake.
Few international courts or tribunals are equipped to deal with space disputes. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is one. This is the same court that ruled against China’s claim to the Philippines’ islands in the South China Sea. (Beijing ignored the decision.)
“Obviously, it would be nice if everyone followed international humanitarian law and international law on the use of force,” Blake says. “There are consequences for failing to comply. And there are plenty of reasons to comply.”
Ultimately, though, it’s about who you are – and what you want to be.
“People in the military are in the business of killing people and breaking things,” he says. “So what makes us different from criminals who are s**** people and break things? What makes us different is the rule of law and doing everything possible to minimize the harm to civilians.” “