The little big secret enabling science and technology across Latin America


As Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, pointed out in a recent America’s Quarterly article, the United States military has a long and established history of collaborating with partners in the Western Hemisphere. Contemporary activities include joint security operations against narcotrafficking (e.g., Plan Colombia, JIATF South activities), equipment and financial investments in our partner nation’s (PNs) armed services (e.g., Andean Regional Initiative, FMS initiatives), and training and education opportunities for our partners within many of our military institutions across the United States (e.g., the International Program at the Naval Postgraduate School and the International Fellows Program at the Army War College).

However, little is broadly known about the significant effort put forth by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) science offices on developing science and technology (S&T) relationships across the Latin American region, not just within military institutions but also across civil society. These offices have accounted for significant S&T investments since their establishment in the early 2000s, and actively engaged in advancing military S&T cooperation across the region.

As a result, countless undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral researchers have been supported, new and exciting fields of research have expanded their presence across educational institutions, and the advancement of two research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) agreements—which will enable closer military-to-military S&T between the U.S. and these partners—have been made possible. 

DoD’s International Science and Technology Effort in Latin America

The DoD’s Army, Navy and Air Force science offices have a presence in several diplomatic missions and locations throughout the world, with two locations in Latin America (U.S. Embassy Chile; U.S. Consulate São Paulo) that have been active since 2002 and 2014, respectively. Their main objectives are to develop strong partnerships with i) Academia, ii) local industries and iii) PN armed services, for the benefit of international cooperation and U.S. interests. For academic engagements, these goals are achieved through a series of grant mechanisms that enable cutting-edge research within Latin American educational and research institutions, with a focus on basic and early applied research, all of which is open, publishable and wholly owned by the principal investigator in matters relating to intellectual property.

These academic engagements have resulted in the production of high-quality research and the strengthening of ties with scientists that will influence relevant fields such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum sciences, and autonomy. Although the funding of fundamental research may seem as a pursuit normally reserved for non-DoD science agencies, these investments are seen by the U.S. government as a means of ensuring innovation and discovery to ultimately expand the portfolio of S&T options that could someday become an integral part in maintaining both force readiness and a technological edge over adversaries. Most important, this can prevent technological surprise from near-peer competitors.

For partnerships with local industries, these offices function as brokers between companies throughout the Latin American region and DoD Foreign Comparative Testing (FCT) departments, which serve as procurers of novel, innovative, non-U.S.-developed technology that can benefit warfighters in their ability to effectively carry out their mission. As an example, since its inception in 1980, the FCT program has enabled the procurement of more than $5 Billion in foreign items, leading to a direct reduction in research and development (R&D) costs, reduction of risks to major acquisition programs, and acceleration of technology to U.S. armed services.

For PN military partnerships, these offices help develop dialogue between each nation’s corresponding services, in the pursuit of closer S&T cooperation. Through collaboration in S&T, the offices expect to foster closer military relationships based on inter-operative or even interchangeable technologies. Although there are many mechanisms for cooperation (e.g., Master Information Exchange Agreements, MIEA; Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program, ESEP), the “gold standard” for S&T cooperation is the RDT&E agreement. This vehicle allows for direct military-to-military engagement on programs of interest, without the many restrictions of information sharing. As an example, several large acquisition programs have been made possible between the U.S. military and PNs due to pre-established RDT&E agreements.

While a variety of MIEAs and ESEP programs exist throughout the region, only Chile and Brazil signed RDT&E agreements with the U.S. government, pending ratification within their respective congresses. The signing of the RDT&E agreement this past March between the U.S. and Brazil is a successful case study in S&T diplomacy, due to the long and constructive effort put forth by both countries. Initiated in 2017, under now-former president Michel Temer, the DoD science offices were integral in working with key stakeholders within the Brazilian military for conversations ranging from the granularity of individual programs, to connecting leaders within the upper echelons of the DoD to the process. Thus, the DoD science offices serve as reinforcement of the U.S. military’s mission to strengthen partnerships with PNs throughout Latin America.

U.S. Government Has Competition in the Region

For the foreseeable future, the DoD science offices will continue to carry out their mission of engaging their Latin American partners in all S&T-related activities. However, the context of the mission changed due to near-peer competition mainly from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The PRC has engaged thoroughly throughout the region via engagements relating to space sciences, while Russia has focused its effort mainly within the nuclear sciences.

For example, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ South America Center for Astronomy (CASSACA) in Chile was established by the PRC at the University of Chile in 2013. There, research projects constructed from a top-down approach (contrary to projects initiated on the researcher-researcher level) are approved, while giving preference to PRC researchers over non-Chilean ones. In Argentina, they established a “Deep Space Tracking Station” to support space operations, raising concerns from the international community due to a lack of transparency. Russia, on the other hand engaged with Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina via several agreements that focus on training, exchanges, and development.

Against this backdrop, it is important to note that all countries are free to engage with partners on any activities for the benefit of their citizens and strategic interests. However, Latin American nations must take into consideration how these new partnerships align with their own values system—along with the implications of engaging with nation-states that have an entirely different perspective of governance, both as a matter of principle and as a matter of long-term survival. At the same time, the U.S. needs to do a better job of engaging, and change its behavior of ignoring the priorities of its neighbor to the south. This has to come by way of increasing its level of engagement, both diplomatically and militarily, with a strong focus on developing solutions and resources of the region—for the region, with the region. This should include an increased effort to sign bilateral RDT&E agreements that can translate to joint development of acquisitions programs, resulting in an increase in industrial activity, jobs, and ‘home-grown’ technology development. Further, an increased amount of funding for more robust international S&T efforts—with the whole-of-government approach that includes partners like NASA, NSF, and NIH—can translate to the spurring of innovation and talent within academia and private industry. And, finally, there should be a focus on strengthening governmental institutions to promote democracy, good governance, and respect for civil and human rights.

Ultimately, however, Latin American nations will face a stark choice: whether to embrace partners whose governance is focused on subversive suppression of political dissent, lack of free-flowing commerce, and aggressive posturing against regional governments, all of which are against its own values system—or to engage with partners that promote the common values of peace, stability, good governance, freedom, and democracy that our hemisphere collectively shares. Although the agglomeration of these shared sets of values can be messy and chaotic at times, it is the glue that allows humanity to explore its potentials to its furthest extent and continue to propagate it beyond. In this backdrop, the activities of the DoD science offices feed directly into the promotion of this shared set of values, with the ultimate goal of strengthening ties between our partners, while reinforcing western democratic values.

Dr. Diogenes Placencia is the Science Director of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global in Sao Paulo.

Stephanie dos Santos, ONR Global Administrative Assistant Sao Paulo Office, contributed on secondary resources and overall background information gathering for this piece.

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