WASHINGTON — If Russia, China or any other country targeted a U.S. satellite with missiles or other weapons, the United States would respond in a “proportional manner,” said Brig. Gen. John Olson, the senior reserve officer of the U.S. Space Force. 

Depending on the specific situation, an attack against a satellite could justify retaliation but an attack in space doesn’t necessarily require a space solution, Olson said on a DefenseOne online event that was prerecorded and aired Dec. 8.

Olson is mobilization assistant to Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force.

“You don’t always need to respond to a  space activity with an equal space element,” he said. “You could have leverage with any one of the other domains or any of the other tools” the U.S. government has. 

“The United States preserves a broad tapestry and portfolio of capabilities of varying degrees,” he said. A military response could be conducted using aerial, ground or naval weapons. But there are also diplomatic and economic levers that the U.S. can exert. “We generally use the military as the last resort and, of course, that is how it should be.”

Olson insisted that the United States “will respond in a proportional manner at a time and place of our choosing. And I think that’s really effective because that leads to the element of surprise.”

Like other U.S. officials, Olson condemned Russia’s Nov. 15 missile strike that destroyed a defunct satellite in low Earth orbit and generated hundreds of pieces of hazardous debris. He said this action by Russia reinforces the need for a whole-of-government effort to deter and respond. 

“The Russians demonstrating this really irresponsible behavior, which simply doesn’t make sense when we look at the impact on the commercial and human spaceflight side of it,” he said. “And I think it underscores that this is an important national dialogue.”

The Space Force, the branch of the U.S. military responsible for the protection of satellites and other assets in orbit, has to be prepared to provide options and recommend courses of action in response to aggression, said Olson. 

“As we look at all the instruments of power that the nation can bring to bear — the diplomatic, the international, the military and economic — the military is only one of those four levers,” he said. “As we develop our tactics, techniques and strategy, we’re studying, assessing, wargaming, experimenting,” he said. “Ultimately, each situation is different. Every scenario is going to have a unique set of attributes.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...