Space, Speed, and Sovereignty: Hypersonic Tensions in the Southern Hemisphere

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The evolution of hypersonic missile technology marks a significant shift in the global strategic landscape, with a recent U.S. congressional hearing highlighting the swift advances made by nations such as China and Russia. This technological leap into a new era of warfare is characterized by its potential to disrupt existing power balances and introduce strategic ambiguities.

The shifting dynamics of global power are particularly evident in the Southern Cone, where a unique geographic advantage coupled with limited space infrastructure has long drawn space powers seeking to fill technological gaps. South American countries have leveraged these circumstances to develop their national space programs by fostering partnerships that emphasize technology transfer and investment. Even as these domestic initiatives reach new achievements, the presence of foreign partner-operated space infrastructure, notably from China, has grown significantly. In fact, China boasts the largest number of space facilities in the region outside its own territory. This robust investment raises questions about China’s motives, suggesting that its strategic expansion into the Southern Cone is both an extension of its technological prowess and a tactical move to extend its military reach closer to U.S. boundaries.

In recent years the United States has been vocal in raising concerns about these developments, linked to the so-called pacing threat of China. General Laura Richardson, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, recently highlighted the existence of over 11 Chinese space facilities across five Latin American countries. Managed directly and indirectly by organizations with ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), these sites straddle the line between civilian use and military applications. On top of U.S. security unease, these inherently dual-use capabilities stir national sovereignty and security concerns, especially in a region with limited technical and space governance. In this context, vulnerabilities in strategic areas like space may hamper the ability of South American nations to maintain consistent policy positions—and highly prized neutrality—especially in times of great power conflict.

Space-Enabling Infrastructure: Dual-Use and Decisive

Ground stations are a crucial part of space infrastructure. At the core, they provide terrestrial communications links to satellites in orbit and enable the ability to track and command spacecraft. Because of their role in the data transmission flow, they are essential in functions like cybersecurity. Operators also use ground stations to train personnel on satellite maneuvers, tasking, and data processing. Like satellites themselves, the antennas, receivers, and related infrastructure are inherently dual-use, and any ground station can be a first link to civil, commercial, and defense applications. Strategically positioned in the pursuit of continuous communication with spacecraft, ground stations in the Southern Hemisphere—where space infrastructure has proliferated more slowly—have been particularly sought after.

While ostensibly aimed at advancing scientific exploration, as is the case with the China-Argentina Radio Telescope slated for completion in May 2024, the inherent dual-use nature of China’s growing network of space ground control sites in South America raises strategic implications. A key concern is the potential to significantly influence the operational command of hypersonic missiles. Notably, the tracking, telemetry, and command (TT&C) stations can play a crucial role in enabling the precise maneuvering of hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which blend the speed of ballistic missiles with the maneuverability of cruise missiles. China’s footprint augments its command, control, computing, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting (C5ISRT) network for deploying precision-strike weapon systems. Demonstrating its hypersonic advancements, China’s 2021 test around the world involved the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), releasing an HGV. This test marked a first in a method of deployment that involves a fast-moving HGV to place warheads into low Earth orbit that can be directed to strike a designated target. The HGV flew approximately 40,000 km over 100 minutes, a watershed moment according to U.S. military experts. The dual threats posed by these weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, combined with existing TT&C facilities, raise pressing questions about the implications for international and regional security.

The Geopolitical Quagmire

Security Concerns

U.S. national security leaders and analysts have drawn attention to the potential for foreign partner–operated stations to support offensive military operations, including hypersonic weaponry command and control. China’s South American–based space object surveillance and identification installations, suspected to be used to enable foreign knowledge of U.S. space operations, have been a focal point. These facilities, equipped with sophisticated optical and radio telescopes, are perceived as a formidable threat to U.S. space-based assets. They are considered crucial for space situational awareness, enabling the monitoring, tracking, and prediction of the future positions of U.S. satellites. This capability gives the PRC the potential to calculate and possibly launch anti-satellite weapon systems when these satellites are over the Eastern Hemisphere.

A critical yet underappreciated aspect of these facilities, however, is their role in China’s expanding network of TT&C stations. These facilities, instrumental in facilitating communications and issuing commands to spacecraft, are a critical component of the PLA’s C5ISRT capabilities for both satellite operations and the tracking and control of swift-moving objects like HGVs. China’s C5ISRT modernization is critical to its precision strike doctrine, and TT&C facilities in South America may be a vital component of its warfighting capabilities. U.S. security interests are focused on limiting China’s growth in C5ISRT; in a recent congressional hearing, the incoming commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Paparo, highlighted that at the onset of a potential war with China, C5ISRT in the nontraditional warfighting domains of space and cyber will either support U.S. Joint Force efforts to prevail or become China’s Achilles’ heel.

Strategically positioned across South America, TT&C stations offer China critical support for the potential deployment and guidance of hypersonic missiles over the Western Hemisphere, with the United States a likely target. Some U.S. experts are particularly alarmed given Chinese successes in hypersonic missile technology and the lack of defenses in the southern portion of the country.

China's strategic development of a comprehensive global TT&C network, incorporating stationary, mobile, and maritime assets, showcases its commitment to maintaining an unbroken chain of command over its space assets. This network's expansion, which also includes facilities in Africa, is crucial for China to achieve a commanding presence in space operations and control across the globe.

Opacity and Limited Oversight

International facilities affiliated with China are characterized by limited access and oversight from host countries, raising concerns over potential military applications disguised under the pretense of scientific and commercial endeavors. This opacity is a matter of national security for those nations who are often unaware of the risks posed to their sovereignty.

The PRC’s military access is not merely confined to scientific exploration, as it exemplifies a broader strategy of China’s military-civil fusion. This symbiosis blurs the line between civilian and military technologies, leveraging advancements in one to bolster the capabilities of the other. The presence of ground stations like Espacio Lejano in Neuquén, Argentina, operated by entities directly linked to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, underscores the strategic ambiguity and potential for these sites to serve PLA military objectives far beyond their stated civilian purposes.

While the Neuquén station captures significant attention, China’s space-related engagements expand into commercial, academic, and scientific realms. To date, there are approximately three known PRC TT&C sites in the Southern Cone, two in Argentina and one in Chile. The indistinct lines between the Chinese Communist Party's espionage activities and its ostensibly innocuous initiatives are even more pronounced in China’s 2015 national security law and its 2017 national intelligence law. These laws mandate a unified effort from all citizens and organizations to support intelligence operations, underscoring the inseparable nature of China's state and civilian sectors in espionage activities.

Highlighting broader fears about the militarization of civilian space assets, in 2020 the Swedish Space Corporation severed ties with the PRC due to dual-use concerns (though the sites will continue to operate until their contracts expire). The corporation cited a changing geopolitical scene, difficulties distinguishing between civilian and military uses of its antennas, as well as links to the China Launch and Tracking Control General, an entity of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

In the lead-up to the 2023 elections, Argentinian presidential hopeful Javier Milei was vocal about his disdain for China and commitment to closer integration with the United States and Western allies. Since assuming office, President Milei has toned down his rhetoric but has maintained interest in accountability, with a particular focus on the PLA-operated Neuquén station. The provincial government where the station sits backed the executive’s intention to conduct inspections to ensure “maximum transparency” and compliance with existing agreements. Preliminary results of the April 2024 official inspection revealed no irregularities and no indication of military activities. However, Argentina intends on maintaining further oversight over the facility.

The inspection of Espacio Lejano was seen as indicative of the region’s pushback to China’s overreach, similar to sovereignty concerns that have been raised with respect to other major powers. Notably, the inspection team went on to examine another partner facility managed by the European Union. Regular, comprehensive inspections of foreign partner–operated facilities could reflect a positive trend toward protecting national sovereignty in future efforts.

Patchwork Space Governance

Across the emerging space economies in the region, civil, commercial, and defense issues are tackled largely independently, and significant gaps exist across these communities. This shows up as a marked disconnect between technical capabilities and the patchwork of policies, laws, and regulations to manage and protect them. The resulting dependencies on third parties, lack of awareness of implications of decisions made independently, and limited measures to address security vulnerabilities all restrict the autonomy of decisionmakers and may run counter to national priorities.

In a potential conflict scenario, the region’s growing network of ground stations operated by foreign partners—whether governmental or commercial—could be exploited to conduct offensive activities, irrespective of the intentions of their hosts or the stated use of the facility. This would lead to setbacks in regional efforts that prioritize advancing the economic benefits of space while upholding its peaceful use. It could also impair the ability of the host nation to maneuver or maintain neutrality in a conflict scenario with consequences in other strategic areas, especially with regard to sovereignty. The lack of maturity in the governance framework of space activities in this part of the world, described as the “most vulnerable” to cyberattacks, creates significant risks to space users across the region.

Charting a Path Forward

Considering the significant security challenges identified, the need exists for robust international cooperation and dialogue as well as a concerted effort to strengthen defense alliances, enhance technological innovation, and bolster space governance.

Expand Defense and Technological Collaboration

Recent targeted bilateral space security engagements with hemispheric partners should be expanded to include formal defense collaboration mechanisms. The cooperative defense framework established in AUKUS Pillar Two, a strategic alliance among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States dedicated to enhancing advanced military capabilities, offers a promising model. By inviting select South American nations, partners could harness a wider pool of expertise and resources aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of sophisticated technologies for detecting and neutralizing hypersonic threats, while also enhancing the security of critical space infrastructures. Argentina’s recent request to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a global partner points to an appetite to access advanced technology and training. These kinds of mechanisms promote the sharing of critical knowledge and defensive strategies, thereby strengthening readiness against potential military exploitation of strategic assets and increasing the likelihood of a unified stance against shared threats.

Establish Technical Regulatory Dialogues

Technical discussions at bilateral and regional forums can facilitate the development of shared standards and best practices for the operation of ground stations. These standards should emphasize transparency, civilian oversight, and the implementation of space security and cybersecurity safeguards that align with broader national policies. These dialogues should happen at multiple levels to engage operators across the different domains. They should also enable bridges with the policy and regulatory decisionmakers involved in the approval and licensing process of these facilities, ensuring that governments implement adequate measures and protections to benefit end users.

Strengthen Governance

Nations in the region can leverage existing governance mechanisms to limit the vulnerabilities of dual-use capabilities. Cybersecurity measures will remain paramount in protecting space infrastructure from the risks of espionage and sabotage. Costa Rica’s strategy of restricting PRC-sponsored 5G network bids for companies whose countries have not signed on to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime exemplifies a proactive approach. By using this convention as a benchmark, Costa Rica set a precedent for applying international standards to safeguard national interests. If more widely adopted, this alignment would not only foster a unified approach to cyber threats but also send a strong message about the region’s commitment to cybersecurity.

Regional leaders like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile should further integrate multilateral space discussions into existing and new regional forums—such as the space component of the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity or the recently established Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency—to meaningfully involve new space actors. Concrete opportunities include building on the strong regional weight of the signatories of the Artemis Accords, a U.S.-led framework to reaffirm principles for the peaceful use of space in the new era of space exploration. With Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and, most recently, Uruguay on board, the accords offer a strategic tool to develop implementation mechanisms that respond to the unique needs of the region and that strengthen coordination on national governance.

Conclusion

The revealing narrative of Chinese hypersonic missiles and their intricate connections with South American space ground control sites transcends the confines of space and hypersonic technology. It unfolds into a broader discourse on the complexities of sovereignty, technology, defense, and the multifaceted geopolitics of a region with a central role in global challenges as diverse as energy and food security. This situation presents both a challenge and an opportunity for key players in the Americas—in particular, the United States as it competes with China and seeks to lead on space governance—and South American nations that are shaping national and regional space efforts amid complex economic and political challenges. Even beyond U.S. security concerns related to these developments, already there are indications that countries in the region are pushing back on asymmetrical relationships that could impair their own strategic freedom of movement in the future.

Mitigating the risks associated with these dual-use facilities and the potential threats posed by hypersonic weapons requires deeper bilateral and regional cooperation. This cooperation should enhance mutual understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities tied to the nature of space-enabling infrastructure. Through regular, open exchange, countries can demystify the intentions behind the establishment of foreign partner–operated sites and work collaboratively to develop measures that prevent their exploitation for offensive military purposes. These deepening relationships must deliver concrete results such as strengthened defense alliances, technological development efforts, and enhanced national and regional governance measures. Ultimately, countries in the region can build not only on the alignment of values, but also on the alignment of established processes and procedures to advance shared principles: the peaceful use of space, space sustainability, and reducing the risk of conflict.

Guido L. Torres is the executive director of the Irregular Warfare Initiative and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense Program. Laura Delgado López is a visiting fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow.

Guido L. Torres

Executive Director, Irregular Warfare Initiative and Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense Program, Atlantic Council