2023 was a busy year — albeit one with mixed progress — on the space security front. No less than 27 countries pledged to not conduct destructive anti-satellite missile testing, bringing the total to 37. Meanwhile, the recently concluded Open Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats was lauded for driving energy into the long-stunted multilateral discussion, despite its disparate outcomes. In Ukraine, the possibility of space-related aggression in the war with Russia has persisted thanks to Russia describing commercial satellites as a “legitimate target.” The first so-called “commercial space war” has drawn rare broader public attention to the need to set firm lines for space aggression in times of conflict.   

As the space security conversation advances, one region that continues to be largely overlooked is Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). However, space security should matter to the countries of the region — even to those for whom space is not a recognized priority today — and the United States should realize that with space security gaps mounting, there are important benefits to bringing the conversation closer to home.

An inconspicuous issue  

A variety of space activities have proliferated in LAC as of late. In March, Brazil celebrated the first commercial space launch from its Alcântara space center, a central feature of the leading space program in the region. In September, Costa Rica hosted the first Central American Space Conference. Mexico’s first lunar exploration mission, the Colmena Project, will arrive onboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander in early 2024.

Despite the rising level of activity in the LAC space sector, space issues remain relatively unknown within the public and the decision-making communities across the region. While it’s easy to attribute this lack of awareness to other urgent and persisting political and economic challenges that have been more pressing in people’s minds, one major culprit is that decision makers have failed to clearly articulate how furthering space capabilities could play a role in addressing those very challenges. With the public policy linkage not consistently defined, when space activities do come to the forefront, they are seen as luxuries — frivolous ones at that.

This disconnect matters: There’s a weak link between the effort to develop technical capabilities in space and the resulting policies, laws, and regulations, despite there being relevant expertise in the region. This results in a governance discussion that is largely scattered, especially when it comes to the civilian and military entities engaged in such activities. In fact, while LAC experts regularly speak and write about space security and governance issues, their concerns are relegated to the academic domain rather than being considered for practical matters of governance and policy, thus reproducing the disconnect among essential components of the space ecosystem.

Vulnerabilities and gaps

Spacefaring nations in the region share a fundamental need to advance space security. The growing dependence on space activities in the region of the world deemed “most vulnerable” to cyber attacks highlights a disproportionate exposure to counterspace risks, such as jamming or hacking. Whether through bankruptcy or conflict, the interruption of space-enabled services delivered to the region by commercial vendors or partners puts users dependent on those services at risk of being “collateral damage” — whether they know it or not.

This concern over dependence on third parties — such as companies providing satellite communications to government users or partner nations implementing satellite data agreements for disaster management — has motivated Argentina, Brazil, and more recently Peru, to seek technological autonomy in space. Sustaining long-term political support for doing so, however, has been challenging — the success rate of attempts to solidify space activity as a public policy issue has been consistently low, and decision-making processes have grown more volatile. On top of that, the rise of defense-oriented programs in the civilian space sector, can result in misalignment with national defense posture and strategy. This raises operational risks, as it incentivizes potential attacks on a nation’s space capabilities — often inadequately funded or protected — when operational leaders lack decision-making authority and proper situational awareness. Coupled with current political tensions and unresolved interstate conflicts, this complex scenario leaves the LAC region with limited defensive counterspace options, and turns it into a potential breeding ground for misunderstandings and vulnerabilities on the international stage.

Illustrating these dynamics is Chile. Despite having just concluded a second public consultation process for a national space policy, Chile has struggled to articulate why space is an important public policy issue. Consequently, its space development has leaned towards low social profitability and transitory political support. For example, Chile’s Air Force has been leading the development of the country’s National Satellite System since 2019. While recognizing the need to build stronger relations across a set of disparate national communities, this program faces challenges as a national-level effort as it remains insufficiently aligned with the public policy discourse and strategic decision-making structures necessary to give it solid institutional footing both inside and outside of the military.

Thanks to challenges in establishing space policies and consolidating space programs, the LAC region confronts a landscape fraught with vulnerabilities and risks. These challenges emerge from international dynamics, such as shifts in the global order, and are heightened by an internal governance challenge. Overall, a pervasive confusion in the development and implementation of space services prevails, and thus far, LAC region governments have prioritized technical and operational experts over political and strategic decision-makers, resulting in compartmentalization and a breakdown in multisectoral collaboration. The resulting siloes hinder the significance, reliability, and legitimacy of public investments in space development, making it harder to sustain support and forcing space advocates to start over whenever leadership changes. And, as a result, the LAC region becomes increasingly dependent on outsider third parties that penetrate the region with space technologies.

It is in this context that we highlight China’s growing presence in the region. While partnering with China represents a complex political choice, it still presents concrete benefits to the LAC partner. A nation seeking greater autonomy in space may cooperate with China in order to gain advanced technical know-how through technology transfer. For example, Bolivia gained crucial command and control experience through its collaboration with China on the Tupac Katari satellite, even if the country is unable to build on it in the near term. This type of cooperation raises alarms in the United States due to the nearly-invisible boundary between the Chinese military and civil space programs, exacerbated by a lack of transparency that increases concerns about the potential of counterspace, electronic warfare, and conventional weapons fielding at these partner sites. Case in point is the Espacio Lejano ground station in Argentina, where the host nation has “little to no oversight” in the use of this facility per the terms of the contract with Beijing. While appealing because of the ways that the technological skills and infrastructure may make a nation more autonomous in space, these partnerships in addition to highlighting a low awareness of the link between space cooperation and security and strategic issues, may thus open up new, unexpected security gaps in the region.

Towards regional space security

Space security, like other transnational issues such as migration and trade, should be a regional effort that facilitates collaboration and coordination, enables regular exchange of information and best practices, and helps increase capacities to understand and address space security challenges, among the various nations in the area.  

For these efforts to be meaningful and sustained, LAC countries need to articulate the “why” of space in relation to the public interest. Additionally, they must integrate space into all strategic governmental-level definitions to ensure a comprehensive and lasting societal impact of long-term investments in space. They should also seek consistency among international diplomatic postures, capacity development, and operational security. In other words, LAC countries should pursue coherent and integrated space development.

This internal alignment will not only help build sustained support across the decision-making communities in LAC countries, but, importantly, will also help identify priorities and vulnerabilities and then bring to bear the resources (technical and otherwise) to address them. In adopting this approach, nations may find that the outsourcing of space security concept formulation — the process of illustrating the value of space security or safety and defining positions around such issues — is not viable. Similarly, they may find that generating discourse and acquiring technologies without careful consideration of their multidimensional effects is imprudent. LAC states may instead pivot to efforts to cultivate prioritized capabilities — not just technical, but also in policy, diplomacy, and law — that could enable progress toward their sought-after autonomy.

APEP-S: Aligning security and prosperity?

Concerns over Chinese influence in the region have prompted calls for greater U.S. space engagement in LAC. The fact that space efforts in some of the LAC countries are led by the military may factor into U.S. hesitation to pursue more active cooperation, especially if they are already collaborating with China. However, space security challenges abound, and the U.S. and most LAC space nations are more closely aligned on relevant governance issues than may perhaps be expected.  As early signatories to the core space treaties, countries like Mexico have been consistent — and vocal — in advancing the peaceful use of space activities. Given the key leadership role of national militaries in space efforts for many actors in the region, this tenet still allows the use of space for defense purposes.

Despite this alignment, the U.S. still views the region as a relatively minor player, and it tends to look elsewhere as it strives to maintain leadership in space and compete with China and Russia over who sets the rules for space governance. It is of note that five LAC countries have signed on to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords — the most in any given region after Europe. That said, this appears to be the result of a global courtship rather than any particular emphasis in the region. The U.S. has not yet adopted a strategy to engage LAC on space security issues in a coordinated fashion, instead engaging in one-off discussions and exercises.

The quietly announced Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity-Space (APEP-S) effort, to be led by Chile, suggests this may change. Announced in 2022, APEP is intended to deepen economic cooperation in the Western Hemisphere to achieve shared prosperity. With no public details on its new space-focused initiative APEP-S, however, it is not known whether it will include space security, which is central to advancing space-related prosperity in the region. Moreover, because its membership is subsumed to the APEP parent framework, which currently includes only 10 LAC countries, APEP-S may still be only a starting point. APEP-S would currently not include the two most advanced space nations in LAC: Argentina and Brazil. Mechanisms to engage non-members, especially those with strong industry players, would be an important step toward making the effort impactful in aligning space security towards building regional prosperity.


As the incredibly diverse space efforts across Latin America and the Caribbean suggest, space activities, while not consistently prioritized, promise important contributions to advancing national objectives and addressing regional challenges. The corollary to that is that space security challenges, so far largely ignored by the region, pose concrete risks to those very priorities. This means that even for LAC countries that do not see themselves as space nations, their growing use of space means they cannot afford to overlook their exposure to space security threats. The emergence of counter-space capabilities is a trend that, far from weakening, is likely to strengthen proportionally with the intensification of regional and international uncertainty.

LAC space nations can meaningfully contribute to the multilateral space security effort that has recently gained new momentum, not just through the work of subject matter experts, but also by adopting regional positions, whenever appropriate. Given the complex interaction of the technical, policy, and legal aspects at play, the opportunity exists to better integrate, elevate, and build on existing capacities towards greater autonomy in space – both nationally and regionally. In this context, the consistency of regional space policy should help provide certainty regarding the principles and objectives of the region’s expanding space activities. To get there, LAC space nations should address the disconnect between the technical and operational leaders who are typically in charge of space projects, and the political-strategic leadership. Now more than ever, LAC nations must invest in building capabilities that enable the establishment of coherent, long-term strategies, and decision-making capacities to integrate space into the national agenda – not treat it as merely “nice-to-have.”

For the U.S., the possibility of a sustained regional space security effort also presents opportunities. While the region’s compelling geopolitical incentives have attracted adversaries like China and Russia, the reasons to engage with LAC nations go beyond a tactical balancing act, especially as LAC space nations gain increased autonomy. U.S. space leaders should rethink the level and consistency of engagement with LAC on these issues, and execute a sustained engagement strategy that builds trust and resilience against the vulnerabilities and threats that will appear in today’s multi-domain environment — whether in a ground station in Antarctica, in Low-Earth Orbit, or in the halls of the United Nations.

Laura Delgado López is a Visiting Fellow at the Americas Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a 2023-2024 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. Victoria Valdivia Cerda is a space policy and law expert based in Chile whose work focuses on counterspace and strategic space developments in Latin America.