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Argentina Space Launch Vehicles

By 2008 the Argentine Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) is overseeing an enterprise known as VENG to develop space vehicles, particularly satellite launch vehicles (SLVs), and launch services. Pursuant to this effort, VENG has developed and tested the Tronador I rocket. Development of the Tronador rocket and development of a hydrazine concentrate pilot plant at Falda del Carmen also are underway. Hydrazine is a key substance in liquid rocket fuel, and the Falda del Carmen plant was part of Argentina's dismantled Condor II missile program. This "space program" seems to have approval from the Government of Argentina (GOA).

The GOA's/CONAE's plans to develop a rocket for space launch purposes -- and to develop rocket propellant at the Falda del Carmen facility -- is of interest to the U.S. because it appears inconsistent with the understanding on SLVs and dismantlement of the rocket motor production facility at Falda del Carmen reached between Argentina and the United States prior to Argentina becoming a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1994.

In the 1980's/early 1990's, Argentina was actively engaged in the development of the Condor ballistic missile program, which clearly was intended to produce MTCR Category I military missiles, including for export to Egypt and Iraq. An MTCR Category I missile system is one that can carry a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km. The Condor program represented a serious missile proliferation concern and a major irritant in our bilateral relationship. This situation was further aggravated by Argentina's attempts to camouflage - and thereby maintain - the Condor program by calling it an SLV program. SLVs and ballistic missiles are almost identical in design, fabrication, and function. Their technologies are essentially interchangeable, and there are virtually no technologies that support SLV development that would not also facilitate ballistic missile development. Any rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit also is by definition an MTCR Category I system. It also is inherently capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against surface targets, and many countries have used the same boosters to deliver both weapons and satellite payloads.

To address the concerns raised by the Condor program, the United States insisted that Argentina dismantle its existing missile facilities and agree to forego Category I missiles. In addition, because Argentina sought to disguise the Condor program as an SLV program, the US also insisted on restrictions on Argentina's SLV activities. The United States -- and the MTCR as a whole -- sought and obtained from the GOA written assurances that Argentina would undertake specific actions to dismantle the rocket production facilities at the Falda del Carmen plant. The MTCR Partners requested these actions to ensure that Argentina's MTCR-class missile program could not be revived.

Accordingly, in 1992, the GOA assured U.S. officials -- including then-Under Secretary Bartholomew -- that Argentina had no SLV program and that Argentina did "not now or any time in the foreseeable future" contemplate development of an SLV. The GOA provided similar assurances to the MTCR during April 1992 meetings with the multinational MTCR outreach team. While Argentina did not state unequivocally that it would "never" pursue an indigenous SLV capability, the diplomatic record indicates that the United States has understood this to be the case since 1992.

With regard to dismantlement of the Falda del Carmen rocket-motor production facility, the GOA provided written assurances to the MTCR in late 1993 that it would take specific steps to dispose of the MTCR Category I missile manufacturing equipment located at the Falda del Carmen plant. These assurances were key to the MTCR Partners' decision to admit Argentina to the Regime and included agreement to:

  • seal the casting pits in such a way that they cannot be put to their originally intended use (i.e., rocket motor production);
  • remove from the propellant mixer all sets of gears and mixing blades; and
  • relocate from the Falda del Carmen rocket motor plant either the AP grinder or the X-ray machine, and use both items only for non-missile (which includes non-SLV) purposes.
Argentina has honored faithfully its explicit commitments related to dismantlement of the Condor II missile program.

In 1999, the GOA sought release from its 1992 commitments regarding SLV development, and expressed great disappointment when the U.S. declined to do so. The GOA argued that the U.S. decision disadvantaged Argentina vis-~-vis other MTCR Partners and infringed on Argentine sovereignty. It also argued that while Argentina did provide assurances to the U.S. in 1992 regarding SLV development, it had not permanently renounced its right to peaceful use of space technologies, including SLV development. Subsequently, in late 1999/early 2000, following further discussion of the issue, the GOA made clear that it had no intention of pursuing development of an indigenous SLV capability, largely due to financial concerns. However, in an April 2000 non-paper, the GOA reiterated its view on SLV development, noting that it believed it inappropriate to limit Argentina's future "peaceful pursuit" of an SLV based on past events. It also indicated that U.S. dialogue on this matter would continue.

After seeing press reporting in August 2007 on the Tronador program, US officials informally raised the launch vehicle issue with the CONAE Director Dr. Conrado Varotto. During those September 2007 discussions, Varotto said Argentina has no intention of proliferating missile technology but needs a reliable solution to its space launch problem. It has decided that contracting for launches of its satellites on foreign boosters is too costly, and is pursuing an SLV program as a cost-effective way to get its satellites into orbit. With regard to its 1992 commitments, Varotto said the commitment on SLVs was for the "foreseeable future," not "forever," and that the passage of time had changed Argentina's situation. At the same time, Varotto said Argentina is serious about nonproliferation and its commitments with regard to the Condor program. The facilities used in the Condor program have been completely dismantled, and Argentina has developed a new facility (at the same industrial park) for the SLV program that does not implicate the old Condor facilities. Additionally, the Tronador SLV is a liquid-propellant system whereas the Condor was a solid propellant system.

The U.S. was skeptical of Dr. Varotto's suggestion that building and maintaining an SLV infrastructure would be less costly than contracting for launches, but noted that the priority concern for the U.S. was nonproliferation. SLVs are MTCR Category I systems and inherently capable of WMD delivery. SLVs and ballistic missiles also are essentially identical in design, form, and fabrication and any developments in one area could be applied to the other. Given past concerns about Argentina trying to disguise its missile program as an SLV program and the interest of the U.S. and other MTCR countries in preventing the spread of missiles and missile-related technology that could potentially fall into the hands of proliferators, the U.S. hoped that Argentina would continue to abide by its 1992 commitments. U.S. officials also noted that the United States has maintained a policy since September 1993 of not encouraging MTCR member countries' "new" SLV programs. In this context, "new" means SLV programs the United States did not cooperate with prior to the advent of the MTCR in 1987. Argentina therefore should not expect U.S. support for its program even if the United States and Argentina simply agree to disagree about Argentina's 1992 commitment on SLVs. Varotto hoped that the two sides could think creatively about ways to resolve the issue, possibly including by the United States agreeing to support Argentina's SLV program if certain transparency measures were implemented.

In light of sensitivities in the broad U.S.-Argentina bilateral relationship, the United States has not raised this issue formally with the GOA. The US supports the peaceful pursuit of space as outlined in the President's Space Policy. Washington agencies have been considering how to balance its response to Argentina's pursuit of a space launch vehicle program in light of the understanding on SLVs and dismantlement of the Condor missile program reached in 1992 between the United States and Argentina prior to Argentina becoming an MTCR member. The United States determined that while the United States and Argentina continue to hold different understandings of Argentina's SLV commitments, there was little likelihood that the GOA could be persuaded to abandon its SLV program and we do not intend to pursue such an outcome. Rather, given the past history of the SLV issue and the ongoing priority the US placed on missile nonproliferation, the US wanted to seek full ransparency into the GOA's SLV program, including annual consultations on the status of the program and the option for periodic site/s visits.

As of 2010 there were reports that Argentina' National Committee of Space Activities lead by Conrado Varotto had renewed its plans to finish the development of a small satellite launch vehicle that is intended to serve government, commercial interest and previous military requirements. The new launch vehicle based on the Condor-II (Badr-2000) technology is expected to be ready for small satellite launches as a commercial business satellite launch vehicle after its first flight tests optimistically planned for 2013.

The booster development program is being controlled under the management of the CONAE [Committee of Activities Space] engineering team and researchers. All the propulsion technologies, control systems and guidance are being developed by Argentine based industry capability. Argentina want the ability to launch its own satellites without having to depend on other nations as well as provide commercial business capability as desired by regional countries. Argentina believes it can launch its satellites at a quarter of the present international rates.

Right now Argentina is concentrating on the first stage core large 1 meter diameter solid motor development that apparently produces 30,000 kilograms thrust while the other Condor-II elements have in the past been essentially developed but must be put back into production. The core solid motor testing development is said to be quite advanced. In total the overall booster is undergoing testing in its prototype design configuration.

Condor- III SLV/BM Booster Design

Four Condor-II first stage 0.80 meter diameter solid motor shorter burn strap–on boosters are added to the core 1 meter diameter solid propellant booster that offers a high total thrust first stage performance capability. That in turn will be topped by two Condor–II 0.80 meter diameter solid motors with altitude and vacuum expansion nozzles for the second and third stage topped by the 1 meter diameter payload encapsulation shroud. The total booster appears to be designed to be about 17.50 meters long. The first stage four solid propellant strap-on boosters sport one base fin each for atmospheric launch stability with a first stage cluster diameter in excess of 2.60 to 3.0 meters not including the fins.

Condor – III SLV/BM Alternative First Stage Booster Design

Alternative design test study in progress as this report is developed opts to replace the four Condor-II strap-on boosters with three core first stage boosters producing over 90,000 kilograms thrust at liftoff for a much higher performance system. It is also conceivable that a shorter version of the core 1 meter diameter solid motor could be utilized as a second stage. At this point the overall design is apparently nearing finalization with technological improvements. Several other derivative booster configuration developments could evolve from this near final design with both space and ballistic missile options.

The payload capacity of the new booster is expected to be depending on the orbit and inclination will be 249.48 (250) kilograms to 408 {400) kilograms to 1,200 kilometers to 200 kilometers low earth orbit altitude.

Argentina was forced to abandon the Condor-II ballistic missile development back in 1993 that was lead by the Argentine armed forces.

This renewed Argentine space booster ballistic missile capability is also intended to bolster its so called defense capability that has long been sought by its military. The use of space program launch vehicle development as a back door to ballistic missile development is apparent like some other rogue countries. This could be an ominous development for this region of South America that up to now had been avoided. Argentina is also known to have renewed nuclear processing work at its available facilities but to what extent and what end remains uncertain but it is being monitored. How the debt burdened Argentine economy can afford to support and finance such space booster, ballistic missile and satellite development programs remain a great mystery to be investigated.



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