Cort Thompson ’20 has won the American Society of International Law’s 2020 Richard Baxter Military Prize for his paper, “Avoiding Pyrrhic Victories in Orbit: A Need for Anti-Satellite Arms Control in the 21st Century,” forthcoming in the SMU Journal of Air Law and Commerce.
The annual prize is sponsored by the Lieber Society on the Law of Armed Conflict, an interest group that serves as ASIL’s focus point for the study of the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law and other public international law. The prize recognizes a paper written by an active-duty member of the armed forces that “significantly enhances the understanding and implementation of the law of war.”
Thompson is a Captain in the U.S. Army and will enter the JAG Corps after graduation. He attended Vanderbilt Law School through the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program and as a Thomas Beasley Scholar. He earned his undergraduate degree with honors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2015, commissioning as a Military Intelligence Officer. Before attending West Point, he served for three years as an unmanned aerial vehicle operator in Germany and completed two deployments to Afghanistan.
Thompson became interested in laws that regulate military anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons after India destroyed one of its own Ministry of Defense satellites on March 27, 2019, by hitting it with a direct-ascent, kinetic-energy ASAT weapon. The impact created approximately 270 pieces of trackable debris that remain in orbit as a long-term hazard to future space launches. “India’s demonstration of its ASAT capability was an important reminder that space is a global commons, and the activities of one state affect those of every other nation with a space program,” Thompson said.
In his paper, he issues a call to action for states to negotiate updates to the longstanding treaties and other international agreements governing outer space to prevent any single nation from deliberately using kinetic ASAT weapons to create artificial orbital debris. “The applicable international regimes that govern space are fragmented and ineffective,” he said. “My paper urges states to reengage in multilateral, reciprocal arms-control agreements and to update the treaties and other regimes in place to ensure that unfettered debris pollution by one state does not hamper future space exploration or satellite launches by other nations.”
Thompson compares the comprehensive set of laws needed to address activities in space, including the creation of space debris and satellite launches and orbits, to the law of the sea, which addresses the rights and duties of all states relating to navigating open waters, coastal waters jurisdiction and pollution that washes ashore. An international legal regime addressing orbital space was established by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, along with several other treaties negotiated in the 1970s. While these treaties remain in force, Thompson asserts they are long overdue for an update. “These treaties were concluded at the height of the Cold War with an emphasis on preventing nuclear weapons from being stationed in orbit. Today, there is much work to be done to address contemporary military capabilities in space,” he said.
Thompson’s article, which focuses specifically on ASAT weapons, was sparked by his realization that, with India’s successful destruction of its own military satellite, it had joined the U.S., Russia and China as one of four nations capable of destroying an orbiting satellite from earth. “As more nations demonstrate the ability to intercept space objects using kinetic-energy weapons, we must establish customary international law norms that clearly prohibit intentional break-ups of satellites in orbit,” he said.
“Cort’s detailed approach stakes out authoritative ground in a rapidly evolving field. This work should help shape U.S. policy by informing the interface between treaty-based approaches to regulating space and the classic norms governing the national self-defense and the limits of lawful force,” said Michael A. Newton, professor of the practice of law, who is most recently the editor of The United States Department of Defense Law of War Manual: Commentary and Critique (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Thompson began work on his paper at the beginning of his 2L year as an independent research project under the supervision of Professor Ganesh Sitaraman and submitted it to the SMU Journal of Air Law and Commerce as a 3L. His column based on the paper, “Russia’s Recent Space Activity Is A Return to Old Form,” was published in the Lawfare legal blog on April 20.