Should Killing a Satellite Provoke War on Earth?

Artist's conception of a satellite attack

Artist's conception of a satellite attack 3DSculptor

A Space Force official says the service is considering how to respond to attacks in orbit.

As the Space Force approaches its second birthday, service leaders are considering how to respond to an attack on assets in orbit.

The prospect is far from merely hypothetical, as illustrated by Russia’s test that pulverized one of its own satellites in November. A strike on U.S. assets could spark a conflict in land, air, sea or cyber domains, Brig. Gen. John Olson, the mobilization assistant to the chief of space operations, said Wednesday.

“You don’t always need to respond to a space activity with an equal space element. You could leverage any one of the other domains or any one of the other tools,” he said at Defense One Outlook 2022. “It really depends, but I will certainly say that the United States...will respond in a proportional manner at a time and place of our choosing.”

One of the top reasons the Space Force was established was to think through the doctrine for conflict in space, including how the United States might respond to different types of attacks in orbit, which could range from blowing up a spy satellite to disabling a missile-warning satellite to temporarily scrambling communications. 

The service has released its first doctrine, which explains its role and responsibilities within the broader national security community, in August. 

When it comes to drafting norms of behavior for responding to conflict in orbit, some members of Congress say the Space Force is moving too slow. Rep. Jim Cooper, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, wrote in War on the Rocks that the country has been “inviting an orbital Pearl Harbor for decades.” 

Cooper cautioned military leaders against escalatory actions, like bombing a ground station and killing an adversary’s troops, that could quickly turn war in orbit into World War III on Earth.

“I thought the new Space Force and the revival of the old Space Command were supposed to give America better options. No U.S. president should be boxed in like that. America needs better answers — and clearer thinking — fast or the Space Force and Space Command will be failures,” he wrote. 

Olson stressed that officials could respond to conflict in space with a variety of non-military options, including diplomatic, economic and political pressure.

“We generally use the military as the last resort,” he said. “Of course, that’s how it should be.”