The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is an anti-ballistic missile defense system developed by American company Lockheed Martin. The stated purpose of THAAD is to defend U.S. troops, allied forces, population centers, and critical infrastructure from short- and medium-range missiles.
THAAD relies on a “hit-to-kill” approach, using infrared sensors to track the incoming missile and ramming its head-on to destroy it. One of the main characteristics of THAAD is the ease of transportation, which makes it possible to quickly reposition the system. This gives THAAD greater flexibility to respond to changing threats. However, there are also three main limitations of THAAD- 1) It is mainly designed to be used against short and medium-range missiles rather than Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). 2) It may also not be efficient against missiles with an irregular and unstable trajectory (for example, North Korea’s medium-range Rodong missiles) 3) It is challengeable for THAAD’s radar to differentiate between real warheads and decoys. When a real warhead is launched among decoys, the THAAD missile may potentially hit a decoy missile and allow a real warhead to continue towards its target.
In July 2016, the previous South Korean government decided to deploy the anti-missile defense system THAAD. Current South Korean President accelerated its deployment with additional launchers in response to North Korea’s nuclear test on September 3. However, there is domestic opposition in South Korea, especially in Seongju County, where the system is deployed. China firmly opposes THAAD’s deployment in South Korea, viewing it as an extension of U.S. strategic interests in Asia. Russia stands on the same position with China. North Korea sees the deployment of THAAD as an act of aggression and has accelerated its missile and nuclear programs with further tests.
THAAD on the Korean Peninsula
• Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in initially opposed the system but has since accelerated its deployment with additional launchers in response to North Korea’s nuclear test on September 3.
• Both the U.S. and South Korea see THAAD as necessary to defend against North Korea’s missile threat as well as a crucial part of their security strategy in Northeast Asia. Nevertheless, domestic opposition in South Korea has been strongest in Seongju County, where the system is deployed.
• THAAD strongly affects South Korea’s relationships with its neighbors, especially China which has objected to its deployment, viewing it as an extension of U.S. strategic interests.
• North Korea sees the deployment of THAAD as an act of aggression and has accelerated its missile and nuclear programs with further tests.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, better known by its abbreviation THAAD, is an anti-ballistic missile defense system developed by American company Lockheed Martin. Production began in 1992 and the first contract with the U.S. government was signed in January 2007. The stated purpose of THAAD is to defend U.S. troops, allied forces, population centers, and critical infrastructure from short- and medium-range missiles. The first foreign sale of the system was to the UnitedArab Emirates (UAE) with the deal signed at the end of 2011.
The THAAD system consists of five parts:
3. fire control,
4. the THAAD radar,
5. support equipment.
The sequence of a THAAD interception would start with an enemy launching a missile. The missile would be detected by the THAAD radar system when falling into range and the information would be relayed to the fire control center. The fire control center would then instruct the launch of an interceptor missile. The target object data and predicted intercept point would be downloaded to the missile, and the missile would be fired from the launcher at the enemy projectile. The information on the target and interception would be continuously transmitted to the missile while in flight and the enemy projectile destroyed when it re-entered the atmosphere (terminal phase). Each individual launcher takes 30 minutes to reload.
One of the main characteristics of THAAD is the ease of transportation which makes it possible to quickly reposition the system. This gives THAAD greater flexibility to respond to changing threats. While alternative Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMDS), such as the Aegis BMD and Patriot/PAC-3, are also transportable, they have a more limited range. THAAD can also intercept a wider range of threats. It can intercept both exo- and endo-atmospheric threats, while the Aegis BMD can only intercept exo-atmospheric threats, and the Patriot-PAC-3 only endo-atmospheric threats.
The U.S. has proposed the deployment of THAAD in South Korea since 2014. Official discussions started in early February 2016, largely as a result of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test conducted a month earlier. After a series of consultations, the decision to deploy THAAD was made public by the Park Geun-hye administration on July 7, 2016. According to a joint statement between the U.S. and South Korea made the following day, the purpose of THAAD is to act as a “defensive measure to ensure the security of ROK and its people, and to protect Alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.”
The sudden deployment of THAAD announced by the Park Geun-hye administration divided public opinion in South Korea. According to a Gallup Korea poll in July 2016, 50 percent of respondents were in favor of the decision while 32 percent were opposed.26 Those in favor mentioned national security and safety as their main considerations, while those who are against were worried that the decision would negatively impact the country’s relationship with China and Russia. Some respondents also expressed a reluctance to be increasingly dependent upon the U.S. military. As the decision was not subject to a ratification process in South Korea’s National Assembly, some critics charged that the decision went beyond the framework of the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the U.S.27
North Korea has viewed the decision to deploy THAAD as both a provocation and an act of aggression. Correspondingly, one day after the announcement of THAAD’s deployment, North Korea tested a Pukkuksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM. This was followed by three short-range missiles that were fired six days after the announcement and another two intermediate-range missiles in early August 2016. Continuing in this fashion, the DPRK has test-fired several ballistic missiles during 2017, including its first ICBM in July 2017. On August 9, 2017, North Korea said it was considering firing missiles at the American military base on the island of Guam in the Pacific. In late August 2017, it launched a missile over Japan, and most recently, on September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, which it claims was a hydrogen bomb intended to be carried on an ICBM. Despite seeing THAAD as a hostile move, some analysts have speculated that it also serves North Korea’s interest in securing a closer alliance with China.
Even before official THAAD discussions started, Beijing expressed its opposition to the system. Although China is also opposed to North Korea’s nuclear development, THAAD is seen as an attempt to undermine China’s strategic interests in the region. There are several reasons for this position.