Technological and geopolitical developments underscore the need to balance a desire to preserve complete freedom of action and widely accepted governing rules as the basis for space operations.
Human activities in outer space have undergone radical changes in the last 40 years. Communication, location and remote sensing satellites are now critical global infrastructure, necessary for economic growth, environmental protection and human welfare. These same space-based capabilities are now routinely being used not only be the U.S. military, but also by many potential competitors. Moreover, space is no longer dominated by a few large government-run programs. Market forces are now ascendant, with private and semi-private companies of all sizes leading the way in innovation and satellite system operation.
The space boom brings risks as well as benefits. As space becomes more congested and crowded with on-orbit debris, the chances of collisions that could inadvertently destroy billion-dollar satellites or kill astronauts will continue to rise unless space users share information and coordinate operations more effectively. And, increased military reliance on space has led some nations to pursue technologies that could be used to destroy, degrade, or disable satellite systems, without much debate about whether competitive development of offensive capabilities will help or hurt security.
Since the end of the Cold War, US emphasis has wavered between protecting satellites through rules and mutual restraint, and seeking military means to control who can use space for what purposes. The administration of George W. Bush aggressively pursued “space dominance” and rejected cooperative options. The Obama administration in its early years shifted back towards strategic restraint, transparency, and confidence-building measures. But faced with rapidly rising geopolitical tensions, and technological progress by Russia and China, it moved partway back towards preparations for warfighting in space—a trend that has been accelerating under the Trump administration.
Much has changed since 2008. Advances in sensors and information-processing technology and successes by new space entrepreneurs suggest that some capabilities that eluded the Bush administration, like large constellations of small satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar for anytime, anywhere, any weather tracking of mobile targets, may now be within reach. Others, like space-based missile defense, still probably could not be made to work effectively at an affordable cost and with acceptable strategic consequences, but that presumption still needs objective re-evaluation.