The United States, on March 6, deployed the first elements of the THAAD system in South Korea. This deployment, apparently, is a response to recent North Korean nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches, yet one should not forget that deploying THAAD on the Korean Peninsula has always been part of Washington’s plan to expand and enhance its anti-missile network in the region. The decision to deploy this system attracted, as expected, a strong diplomatic reaction from China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the THAAD deployment seriously undermines regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, and is not favourable to safeguarding peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.
On July 8, 2016, South Korea and the United States announced their decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the South Korean territory. That intent was reiterated in phone conversations on March 1, 2017, between the two countries’ national security advisors, Kim Kwan-jin and H.R. McMaster, following the approval of a land swap deal that allowed the system to be deployed on the military’s preferred site. The US was in a rush to deploy the THAAD system amidst the impending disqualification of President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted when South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the legislature’s impeachment vote of December 2016. Russia and China have thrown their weight against it. Russia has said the US missile system will negatively affect global strategic stability, while China has opposed it because it believes that the THAAD deployment will seriously damage its security interest. In the following paragraphs, detailed information on THAAD has been provided.
1. What is THAAD?
THAAD stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. It is a relative recent addition to the United States’ anti-ballistic missile/interceptor toolkit. It entered production in 2008 and is primarily tasked with taking out threatening ballistic missiles in what is known as their “terminal” phase, that is, when they’re on the way down – not on the way up. Ballistic missile trajectories are divided into three phases: boost (When it is fired), mid-course (When it is in the middle of its route), and terminal (The target where it terminates). This system was already deployed in Guam, and has recently been deployed in South Korea as well, to protect against any incoming missiles — apparently from North Korea. THAAD has a range of 200 km and can reach altitudes of 150 km.
2. How it works?
THAAD can destroy short-to-intermediate-range enemy missiles in their terminal phase. It has a unique capability to destroy threats in both the endo- and exo-atmosphere using proven hit-to-kill (kinetic energy) lethality. This system is effective against all types of ballistic-missile warheads, especially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (chemical, nuclear or biological) payloads. It is equipped with an X-Band Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, THAAD Fire Control and Communication Support Equipment (TFCC) and a truck launcher.
This system is interoperable with other BMDS elements, working in concert with Patriot/PAC-3, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence, forward based sensors, and C2BMC (Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications System) to maximize integrated air and missile defense capabilities.
The working of THAAD can be classified into four stages post enemy missile launch:
a. The radar detects the enemy missile
b. The TFCC identifies and engages the target
c. The launcher truck is instructed to fire the interceptor missile
d. The interceptor missile uses kinetic energy to destroy the enemy missile
THAAD’s first line of defence is its radar system. AN/TPY-2 radar is used to detect, track, and discriminate ballistic missiles in the terminal (or descent) phase of flight. The mobile radar is about the size of a bus and is so powerful that it can scan areas the size of entire countries. Once an enemy threat has been identified, THAAD’s Fire Control and Communications (TFCC) support team kicks in. If there is a decision to engage the incoming missile, the launcher fires an interceptor to hunt for its target. While in flight, the interceptor will track its target and obliterate it in the sky.
THAAD has a 100 percent mission success rate in the last thirteen rigorous developmental and operational tests. According to data from the US Missile Defense Agency, which conducts regular tests of US ballistic missile defence systems, the THAAD system has had 13 successful intercepts out of 13 attempts stretching back to 2006. The most recent of these tests demonstrated the operational integration of THAAD Aegis and PAC-3 in simultaneous endo- and exo-atmospheric engagements of threat representative targets in an awesome display of the BMDS in action.
However, THAAD is less efficient against missiles with an unstable trajectory. The radar of the system collects data based on the exterior properties of a missile like its shape and brightness. If enemy fires a decoy missile among the real missile, it may easily skip the THAAD system.
4. Importance for the US
THAAD is a key element of the US Ballistic Missile Defence System (BMDS) and is designed to defend US troops, allied forces, population centers and critical infrastructure against short-thru-medium-range ballistic missiles. THAAD is effective against all types of ballistic-missile warheads, especially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (chemical, nuclear or biological) payloads. THAAD was specifically designed to counter mass raids with its high firepower (up to 72 Interceptors per battery), capable organic radar and powerful battle manager/fire control capability. THAAD is interoperable with other BMDS elements, working in concert with Patriot/PAC-3, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, forward based sensors, and C2BMC (Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications System) to maximize integrated air and missile defense capabilities. THAAD is mobile and rapidly deployable, which provides warfighters with greater flexibility to adapt to changing threat situations around the globe.
5. China’s response
The THAAD system, modelled on Israel’s Iron-Dome, may be defensive, but its defensive nature assists in enabling strikes. The system shields US and South Korean military forces, giving them the ability to attack North Korea, Russia, or China, and then deflect any response.
The system has a penetrating radar system allowing American forces to monitor not just the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, but deep into northern China.
China is concerned that THAAD’s surveillance capabilities might be able to offer early tracking data to parts of the American ballistic missile defence system, eroding China’s ability to target the US in the event of war.
China has ordered travel agencies to stop selling tour packages to South Korea and taken steps against Lotte Group, one of South Korea’s largest family-run conglomerates (or chaebol), which offered up the land that will host Thaad’s missile battery. South Korean media has reported that Chinese hacks rendered some of Lotte’s websites inoperable. South Korea responded by saying it would ensure Korean companies don’t face unfair trade measures in China.
6. Russia’s anxiety
Russia has said time and again that the US plan of THAAD deployment remains a cause of concern for them. Russian Ambassador to Seoul Aleksandr Timonin has said that Russia regards this move as the US’s effort to create a new regional segment of Washington’s global missile defence strategy. Timonin has also said that THAAD is a direct threat to Russian security as the main aim of US global missile defence is to minimize the effectiveness of Russia’s missile potential.
Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov has also criticised THAAD, saying that it will escalate the regional tension. He has clearly stated that THAAD deployment goes beyond the task of deterring the North Korean threat.
Antonov stressed the importance of political-diplomatic resolution of the situation on the Korean Peninsula aimed at preventing the escalation of tensions in North Eastern Asia,” stated a Sputnik report quoting Russian Defence Ministry statement.
7. Some significant caveats
While THAAD can provide an important additional capability to protect for South Korea, a critical question is whether Pyongyang’s large missile inventory will afford it opportunities to overwhelm the postulated one-to-two THAAD battery architecture. A single THAAD battery holds a limited number of ready-to-launch interceptors, likely ranging from 48 to 96. Spare interceptors can be stockpiled, though at great expense. This implies that one THAAD battery can defend against 20 and 50 attacking missiles, if two interceptors are assigned to each incoming warhead. If additional interceptors are available, the launch canisters can be reloaded within an hour or so. However, there is no assurance that North Korea would pause firing, its missiles to allow THAAD to reload. And given that North Korea has hundreds of Hwasong and Nodong missiles, one can easily recognize how large the defences would have to be if the mission was to attempt intercepts on all incoming missiles over an extended time. Further, the AN/TPY-2 fire-control radar is limited in terms of the number of objects it can track while also providing updated guidance information to the interceptors in flight. Once again, if North Korea launches more than roughly 20 missiles simultaneously, this would likely saturate the radar, as it would necessarily be tracking 60 objects at once. The precise limitations are classified, though it is clear that if the objective is to blunt large salvos from North Korea, at least two or more THAAD batteries would be required.
Lastly, to protect against missile attacks launched from North Korean territory, all of the PAC-3 and THAAD radars would necessarily be pointed north. If North Korea successfully develops and deploys a submarine-launch ballistic missile, as it has been attempting over the past year or two, the missile defences discussed above would be ineffective against the missiles fired from the waters east, west and south of the lower Korean peninsula.
The deployment of one or two THAAD batteries in South Korea would substantially enhance its capacity to defend against a North Korean missile attack. To be sure, there is no perfect defence against ballistic missile attacks, but the probability of greatly reducing the damage resulting from missiles with conventional warheads increases when THAAD is incorporated into the defence architecture. When viewed through the lens of providing maximum protection from a North Korean missile threat, accepting the American offer to provide THAAD to the Republic of Korea is a prudent and defensible policy decision for Seoul.
However, the added defensive capability will have to be weighed against other considerations.
Chinese objections to the deployment of THAAD are clear. The economics of missile defence must also be considered. It is considerably more expensive to deploy and operate THAAD to South Korea, than it will be for North Korea to grow the size of its arsenal or to quickly invest in additional missiles, missile launchers and trained crews in order to overwhelm the defences. Last, as this analysis shows, any system designed to destroy incoming missiles will have leakage. If those missiles are armed with nuclear weapons, that leakage could have catastrophic results.
Officials in Seoul will have some difficult decisions ahead of them, but the analyses here should partially refute arguments that say THAAD will not significantly benefit South Korea when countering the short-range, Hwasong missile threat from North Korea in the immediate future.