Brazil and the United States have reached an agreement to allow U.S. firms to participate in commercial space-launch activities at the Alcantara launch site in Brazil. Although the agreement between the United States and Brazil will help Brazil’s aerospace economy, it will also allow the United States to strengthen its influence on the Brazilian missile development program. The United States, however, is not the only nation vying for influence at Alcantara.
Brazil plans to invest more than US$13 million to build port facilities at its Alcantara Launch Center in 2001. The investment, which will allow heavy cargos to come easily to Brazil’s burgeoning space facility, is part of an overall infrastructure improvement plan in anticipation of U.S. and other foreign companies coming to Brazil to launch satellites.
Last year, Washington and Brasilia reached a Technical Safeguards Agreement allowing U.S. firms to launch American satellites from Brazil’s Alcantara launch facility – potentially one of the most flexible and cost-effective launch facilities in the world. The agreement, however, blocks transfer of U.S. rocket technology to Brazil. Although the agreement will help Brazil’s aerospace economy, it will allow the United States to keep a vigilant eye on, and have influence over, the Brazilian missile development program.
In the mid-1980s, Brazil began developing ballistic missiles based on its sounding rocket program. Brazilian companies also worked with Iraq and Libya, selling and trading missile technology, according to a report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Since the Cuban missile crisis, Washington has resolved to exist in a hemisphere free of ballistic missiles other than its own. Brazil’s ballistic missile program threatened, once again, to bring missile proliferation into Washington’s backyard. Now the United States has been given the opportunity to take an important role in Brazil’s aerospace industry, which would place Washington in a position where it can watch, and influence, Brazil’s developing aerospace industry.
Brazil’s missile development served two key purposes – national defense and economic gain. While its program was initially designed to counter a perceived threat from Argentina, the sale of missile technology proved lucrative.
In early 1994, Brazil began to change its policy of selling missiles abroad because of pressure applied by the United States and other Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) signatories. Membership in the MTCR, a voluntary arrangement among several nations governing the export of ballistic missile technology, allows countries access to space technology banned to nonmembers.
Brazil was allowed to join the MTCR in 1995 after shifting control of its space program to civilians and signing treaties prohibiting the development of weapons of mass destruction. Abandoning its indigenous ballistic missile program was another key stipulation of Brazil’s membership.
In abandoning its ballistic missile program, Brazil sought a new source of revenue from its aerospace industry. Brazil is marketing its exceptionally well-placed Alcantara launch facility as one of the most highly versatile and cost-effective launch sites in the world. The launch site is in northern Brazil only 2.3 degrees south of the equator, which allows heavier payload launches using less fuel than those launched from higher latitudes. The cost of launching rockets from Cape Canaveral in Florida or the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan will be reduced by 20 percent to 30 percent at Alcantara. The seaport and airport will allow easy access of large cargos to the facility.
Even though the United States has signed an agreement with Brazil, the entrepreneurial Brazilians are not limiting their new launch facility to U.S. companies. The commercial space-launch industry does not have enough launch facilities to meet the demands of its clients, a factor behind the international competition for rights to launch from Alcantara. The satellite-launch industry faces a multibillion-dollar backlog of requests to have satellites put into orbit around Earth.
Washington’s agreement to allow U.S. rocket launches at Alcantara addresses both the economic needs and the desire to maintain a close watch on Brazil’s missile development. The agreement offers Brazil access to technology in several sectors of the aerospace industry including: aircraft design and parts, commercial space technology, air traffic control and other airport-related technology. At the same time, it forbids the transfer of U.S. rocket technology to Brazil.
These airport- and aircraft-related technologies are very important to Brazil since airplanes are the only quick way of traveling to Brazil’s largely inaccessible interior. Brazil is also privatizing its airports, which provides an even greater incentive for Brazil to accept an increased level of cooperation with U.S. aerospace companies.
Many companies and nations from around the world will fight for launching rights in Alcantara and may be willing to stretch the bounds of technological assistance in exchange for launching rights. Ukraine’s government has signed an agreement to allow the launch of Ukrainian-built Tsyklon rockets from Alcantara and has indicated a willingness to provide technology for Brazil’s satellite launch vehicle (VLS). China has also considered launching its Long March rockets from Alcantara. Additionally, Russia has shown a willingness to trade missile technology with Brazil after Brazil’s 1995 accession to the MTCR, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
The U.S. plan for hemispheric missile control involves giving Brazil a lucrative economic alternative to developing ballistic missiles. Washington could keep tabs on Brazilian missile development if it has a presence at the Alcantara launch facility. The economic motive for U.S. involvement may be secondary, but it is integral to why the United States wants access to Alcantara.
Although the relationship between the United States and Brazil will help both countries economically, Washington also intends to use its presence in Alcantara as a way to limit Brazilian attempts to acquire ballistic missile technology. To succeed, the United States will have to offer more important benefits to Brazil than other companies and nations. This could prove especially difficult since companies and nations from all over the globe will be much more willing to trade technology related to ballistic missiles in exchange for rights to the launch facility.
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