Satellites are crucial to modern life. We rely on them for civilian uses such as TV, Internet, ATM banking, GPS, agriculture, and weather forecasting. On the military side, we use satellites to guide munitions, operate drones, gather intelligence, and monitor enemy movements. Unfortunately, satellites are increasingly threatened.
Earth orbits in which satellites operate are becoming cluttered with debris. As the number of operational satellites increases, competition for orbital "slots" is intensifying. The military uses of outer space also mean that space-faring nations are eying each other warily as they work to "harden" their own space assets while simultaneously developing new ways to destroy or incapacitate those of potential adversaries.
This intensified competition has led to a debate about how to ensure that outer space remains viable for productive use. Russia and China have proposed a treaty that would ban the deployment of space weapons and prohibit the threat or use of force against space assets. The Bush administration pursued a policy of U.S. space dominance, but the Obama administration has since reversed this in favor of a cooperative multilateral approach. In January, Secretary Clinton indicated that the United States would work with the European Union in developing an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.
In their recent op-ed in the New York Times, John Bolton and John Yoo advocate a return to Bush-era unilateralism, supporting near-absolute freedom of U.S. action in space. They begin their argument with the false claim that "The Obama administration recently declared that America would follow, though not sign, a European Union code of conduct for outer space." In reality, the administration has agreed to work with the EU on creating a code of conduct, but it has explicitly refused to follow the EU code of conduct as it stands, saying that it is too restrictive. Aside from this inaccuracy in their argument, Bolton and Yoo's opposition to greater cooperation in outer space is worrisome.
The kind of muscular, unilateral policy that Bolton and Yoo advocate would encourage unrestrained anarchy in a fragile environment. If the U.S. acts as it pleases, other countries will do the same. Without efforts to coordinate traffic or restrain dangerous behavior, outer space will remain in the kind of anarchic limbo that led the Chinese to conduct an anti-satellite test against their own weather satellite in 2007, destroying it and creating a lot of debris in the process.
Russia and the United States have had the capacity to destroy satellites this way since the 1980s. The Chinese test could have been avoided if there were a clear norm discouraging such behavior. Additionally, a more cooperative atmosphere would have reduced the security concerns that created a perceived need for a show of force in the first place.
A non-binding code of conduct of the sort proposed by the European Union in 2010 is currently the best way to improve outer space security. A treaty banning space weapons is not realistic both because defining a "space weapon" is infinitely difficult given the dual-use nature of space assets, and because there is little political will for a new outer space treaty.
Broad principles are already outlined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which ensures the universal right to peaceful use and extends international law to outer space. What a code of conduct would do is clarify specific norms and best practices.
Article I of the Outer Space Treaty -- to which the United States and 100 other states are party -- establishes space as "the province of all mankind," adding that it "shall be free for exploration and use by all States." In this sense, outer space is roughly analogous to the high seas: free for all to use for peaceful transit.
In the maritime case, a broad set of rules and standard practices have developed over centuries, providing guidance on issues as mundane as which ship has the right of way in given situations. Without these international norms governing maritime operations that enable the safe transit of ships all over the world, global commerce could grind to a halt.
Of course, the physics in outer space are quite different. In the event of hostilities or accidental collisions at sea, destroyed ships and debris will sink to the bottom of the ocean. In outer space, debris in lower orbits could be pulled into Earth's atmosphere in maybe 25 years. However, debris in higher orbits can last for centuries, endangering any space assets seeking to use those orbits. The speed at which objects in orbit travel means that even a marble-sized piece of debris could destroy a satellite. As of yet, there is no cost-effective way to eliminate space debris, although some are trying.
Aside from the threat of hostile acts foreshadowed by the Chinese anti-satellite test, mere negligence and lack of coordination pose a serious danger to the outer space environment. For example, if an operator does not maneuver a satellite into a useless "graveyard" orbit before it runs out of fuel, that satellite becomes a hunk of debris at risk of colliding with other objects (as occurred in 2009 with an Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian spy satellite).
Clear rules and accepted best practices can help mitigate such threats. An outer space code of conduct would codify and strengthen emerging norms such as those outlined in the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, a set of best practices formulated by the world's major space agencies.
Whatever the specifics of a code of conduct or other agreements may be, developing norms and promoting a cooperative framework are in the U.S. interest. With nearly half of the roughly 1,000 operating satellites, the United States has the most to lose. We must emphasize collective traffic management and condemn the initiation of hostilities in outer space rather than supporting unrestrained freedom of action.