Senior U.S. defense officials are growing increasingly concerned that the Chinese military can monitor and potentially target U.S. and allied satellites from a new deep space ground station in the Western Hemisphere, located in the deserts of Patagonia.
In wide-ranging testimony before the U.S. Congress on Feb. 7, Adm. Craig Faller, the newly confirmed commander of U.S. Southern Command, warned lawmakers about China’s accelerated expansion into Latin America. Not only does China support the autocratic regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua and employ predatory lending practices across the region, but it is also investing in key infrastructure such as a deep-space tracking facility in Argentina, Faller told lawmakers.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have been watching the development of this particular facility with growing alarm since its inception. Over the past few years, a powerful 16-story antenna has risen from the remote, 200-hectare compound in the Neuquén province. But the station, which is surrounded by an 8-foot barbed wire fence, operates with little oversight from Argentine authorities, experts say. The ground station reportedly began operations in April 2018.
China has insisted that the aim of the facility is peaceful space exploration and observation. For example, it is said to have played a critical role in China’s landing a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January.
Brian Weeden, a space policy and security expert with the Secure World Foundation, noted that the United States deploys antennas similar to the one in Patagonia all around the world.
“Unless there is something specifically different about this, it’s a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black,” he said. “To me, there is no specific piece of evidence other than it happens to be Chinese that signals that it is nefarious.”
But the U.S. military is concerned that the big-dish radar could be used for another purpose: collecting information on the position and activity of U.S. military satellites.