For many years, South Korea maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity over the possible deployment of the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system on its soil. It had frequently tried to allay regional paranoia by insisting that its indigenous Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system attenuated the need to adopt THAAD.
But in June last year, South Korea cited the inadequacy of its current arsenal to defend against North Korea’s Rodong missiles, and a month later, the deployment of THAAD was announced. Given, however, that this particular class of missile is old news, why has it suddenly become a significant enough threat to warrant the deployment of THAAD?
SHIFT IN OFFICIAL STANCE?
Does this signal a shift in the enduring official stance by South Korea, which had always preferred to maintain strategic prevarication over its view on the deployment of THAAD? In 2014, for instance, a spokesman reasserted the long-standing stance that the deployment of THAAD would be unnecessary, but hinted that any deployment would never interfere with the KAMD system, and more importantly, it would not mean that the country would be succumbing to the U.S.-led missile defense program in the region.
If a lower-tier missile defense system is all that is warranted, then what has changed to propel this undertaking?
Even after the announcement of the working group in February this year, another spokesman dismissed the intention to purchase THAAD as “mere rumor.” In fact, his insistence was consistent with the previous official stance that South Korea’s KAMD system and the development of its own brand of long-range surface-to-air missile, L-SAM, were sufficient to provide a multi-layered defense against North Korea’s threat, nullifying the need for THAAD.
Experts have also noted the prior reluctance to deploy THAAD as a reflection of South Korea’s cognizance of its impracticality and the potential diplomatic repercussions. The proximity of Seoul — the capital of the South — to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) makes it a more vulnerable target to North Korea’s long-range artillery lined along the border than its ballistic missiles.
As such, if a lower-tier missile defense system is all that is warranted, then what has changed to propel this undertaking? Moreover, given that the government has in the past avoided risking antagonizing relations with Beijing, what has triggered the abandonment of this fine balancing act and its policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’?
THAAD in action
Perhaps, as Dr. Cha Du Hyeong, former Secretary of Crisis Information to President Lee Myung-bak, suggests, the continued reluctance of China to abandon its soft-pedaling on North Korea’s economic sanctions might have reinforced the disillusionment of Beijing’s genuine will to impose an effective sanction regime that could cripple its ally.
If succumbing to Chinese demands to not deploy THAAD does not reap the intended effect of having North Korea’s biggest trading partner turn against it, a second — albeit more contentious alternative — is the only answer. This is significantly so when the bomb is ticking with North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear and missile capability.
The practice of the U.S. using its military technological superiority as a bargaining chip is not unheard of
THE TRUMP FACTOR?
Neither has President Donald Trump’s erratic rhetoric helped to allay the fears of the U.S. ally. Particularly, sealing the deal now on THAAD could allow Seoul more breathing space to develop and operationalize its indigenous L-SAM whilst in the meantime offering the multi-layered protection against Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.
If THAAD were to exist as a separate military deal to the indefinite delay of Operational Control (OPCON) — which currently allows the U.S. wartime control over U.S. and South Korean forces — then perhaps this would guarantee defense based on a concrete paper agreement, rather than one subjected to the more volatile “conditions-based” postponement that Seoul had requested.
Given as well U.S. continued persistence in deploying THAAD in South Korea, this eventual acquiescence on the part of Seoul could be a “string attached” to Park’s request to delay the OPCON transfer. In fact, the practice of the U.S. using its military technological superiority as a bargaining chip is not unheard of, and one only need to be reminded of the 1962 Nassau Agreement that saw the U.S. supplying its nuclear-capable Polaris missiles to the UK in return for the deployment of its nuclear submarine Scotland. It is easy to see how both interests could be served in the deployment of THAAD.
HOW THAAD FITS IN THE DEFENSE SPECTRUM
|South Korea’s Missile Defense||North Korean Target (Current and Potential)|
|PAC-2 (deployed)||Cruise missiles
Scud/Hwasong series (tactical SRBM; limited capability)
KN-02 Toksa (tactical SRBM; limited capability)
|PAC-3 (plan to acquire)||Scud/Hwasong series
|THAAD (plan to acquire)||Rodong (MRBM; lofted trajectory)
Musudan (IRBM; lofted trajectory)
|SM-2 Block IIIA/IIIB (non-ballistic missile variants)||Cruise missiles
Surface targets, e.g., ships
|SM-3 (plan to acquire)||Scud/Hwasong series
|SM-6 (plan to acquire)||Cruise missiles
Surface targets, e.g., ships
|*Only if target is within the AN/TPY-2 radar’s 120-degree azimuth.
**SM-6 has only been tested against SRBM.
Speculative South Korea’s Missile Defense Potential Against North Korean Targets (Source: Author’s own)
As it stands, South Korea’s own independent arsenal is capable of defending against North Korean tactical short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) at the terminal phase of the endo-atmosphere (< 100 kilometers), providing a low-tier interception. It possesses medium-high range Patriot interceptors known as PAC-2, which are designed to intercept cruise missiles, aircraft, and offers the rudimentary capability of intercepting Pyongyang’s SRBM.
At present, the South’s deployed arsenal put together cannot defend against the North’s Rodong medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM)
It has also further announced the intention to acquire an upgraded Patriot system, PAC-3, which has a higher interception rate of 70 percent as opposed to 40 percent for its older variant. Coupled with its recently deployed medium-range (up to 40km) surface-to-air system known as the M-SAM, it is also fielding a long-range ballistic defense variant, the L-SAM, with deployment scheduled for 2023.
In its waters, it currently has anti-ship cruise missile and anti-air SM-2 missiles equipped on its King Sejong the Great-class destroyers, and is looking at upgrading to the supplementary longer-range SM-3 and SM-6 missiles, perhaps to provide anti-submarine launched missile defense.
All this is to say that at present, the South’s deployed arsenal put together cannot defend against the North’s Rodong medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), and KN-11 submarine-launch ballistic missile (SLBM).
Moreover, it now appears that the L-SAM, which was originally thought to be a sufficient substitute for THAAD, is potentially only capable of intercepting the North’s SRBMs and has a range of 50-60km, much shorter than THAAD’s range of 40-150km, signaling significant obstacles in fielding its own version of THAAD. Whether or not the South’s KAMD system will be capable of engaging a nuclear-tipped missile remains elusive.
THAAD, therefore, offers an overlapping protection by shielding the upper-tier layer of defense against incoming North Korean high-altitude ballistic missiles. Officially, THAAD has been sold as a terminal phase interceptor capable of intercepting ballistic missiles of all ranges. Its intercept tests have also demonstrated success against Scud-like missiles and Rodong-like MRBMs.
With a reported capability to shoot down incoming projectiles at altitudes between 40 and 150 kilometers and a range of approximately 200 kilometers, THAAD is potentially effective in both endo-atmospheric and exo-atmospheric defense. Particularly relevant in the context of South Korean security interest, a Rodong missile travelling on a lofted trajectory with a range of 650km, 160km altitude, and speed of Mach 7 could potentially be taken out by a THAAD missile when it reaches the terminal phase due to the system’s ability to take down projectiles flying at a speed of Mach 14 or 15.
Chinese and Russian officials have rebuked its effectiveness in intercepting Rodong missiles as they travel too slowly to be intercepted by THAAD, but this could be an estimate for a Rodong traveling at a ‘minimum-energy trajectory’ (MET) of 1,000 to 1,500km. Furthermore, it is imperative to note that a Rodong on a MET would not be an immediate concern for South Korea compared to a lofted Rodong, given that the entire length of the Korean Peninsula is about 1,100km, which means that a lofted Rodong would likely be the trajectory Pyongyang would take in order to inflict maximum damage on its archenemy.
Whether or not the South’s KAMD system will be capable of engaging a nuclear-tipped missile remains elusive
But what about the Musudan IRBM? There has been no THAAD intercept test against an IRBM to-date, which renders its defense capability against Pyongyang’s Musudan a concept rather than proven reality. Nevertheless, in theory, THAAD should be able to intercept at terminal phase a lofted Musudan travelling at a lofted range of 400km and an apogee of 1400km, and it is indeed this trajectory of the Musudan that South Korea should be concerned with (as a Musudan travelling at a MET of 3,000km would not pose a direct threat to continental South Korea).
And while it does not offer direct protection to the capital given its proposed site, this, however, does not negate the viability of THAAD to protect against a lofted Musudan against the middle and southern region of South Korea, home to its and U.S. military facilities necessary to offer a counter-strike force. The growing threat of the Musudan missile to such strategic location, therefore, forges a converging interest for its deployment.
A THAAD system with a maximum range of 200km and 120-degree azimuth can defend against most USFK bases except for USAG Yongsan and Red Cloud. (Source: Google Map)
Is THAAD infallible? Definitely not
A YEAR OF ‘FIRSTS’ FOR THE DPRK
In 2016, the DPRK reportedly carried out 19 separate ballistic missile tests since the beginning of the year, a rate significantly higher than most U.S. missile testing programs. This number does not include its ground rocket engine tests, or its long-range Unha-3 rocket launch that successfully placed an “earth observation satellite” in orbit in February, triggering suspicion as to whether the rocket could be repackaged as a long-range missile. On 12 February this year, North Korea tested the Pukguksong-2 missile, amplifying calls in South Korea for the deployment of THAAD.
What’s even more worth noting is the number of unprecedented breakthroughs in numbers and range the country made last year, introducing and testing non-operational missiles such as the Musudan IRBM (including a successful one on June 22), as well as successfully test-firing its KN-11 SLBM, which reached Japan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) for the first time.
This record breaking also extended to its nuclear testing, which saw 2 separate tests in the space of a year, demonstrating not just its growing bellicosity, but the increasing confidence that North Korea is gradually but steadily inching towards actually devising a useable nuclear weapon.
Is THAAD infallible? Definitely not. No missile systems are, much less to point out THAAD’s inability to track KN-11 SLBMs that are not within the radar’s north-facing 120-degree azimuth. Still, no one has claimed that THAAD would be an “all in one” package. With Pyongyang threatening to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, the situation in the Korean peninsula is an epitome of a race against time to restore – or tilt – the balance before it’s too late.
Special thanks to Ahn JH for interviewing Dr. Cha Du Hyeogn.
Thanks to John Grisafi and Scott Lafoy, for providing technical advice on missile systems.
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Featured Image: THAAD_2011_2920 by U.S. Missile Defense Agency on 2011-10-05 06:09:36