US to Deploy BMD System in South Korea

US to Deploy BMD System in South Korea

The United States and South Korea have decided together to deploy the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) to the Korean Peninsula, the South's Defence Ministry and the US Defense Department said in a joint statement.

The battery operated by US forces will be deployed «as soon as possible» in response to North Korea’s recent missile testing, which has grown more complex and more concerning.

A joint US-South Korea working group is determining the best location for deploying the system. It has been discussing the feasibility of deployment and potential locations for the THAAD unit since February, after a North Korean rocket launch put an object into space orbit. The launch was condemned by the UN Security Council (UNSC) as a test of a long-range missile in disguise, which North Korea is prohibited from doing under several Security Council resolutions. North Korea rejects the ban, saying it is an infringement on its sovereignty and its right to space exploration. Last month, Pyongyang had launched two missiles over the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, the latest in a series of UN violations. North Korea says it succeeded on June 22 in test-firing a surface-to-surface strategic ballistic missile Hwaseong-10, known internationally as Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Musudan, which is known to be capable of hitting part of the US territory such as Guam and the outer reaches of Alaska, is considered especially threatening as it is fired from a mobile launcher, making it hard to detect and track in times of military conflicts. It can also carry a nuclear warhead. The June 22 tests have angered all of the world powers, including Russia and China. The North Korean nuclear policy undermines stability in the region but not only. It also provides a pretext for the US to boost its military presence in the Asia-Pacific. 

THAAD can intercept an incoming ballistic missile at its terminal phase (when the missile starts to aim downwards, not just in its upward launch trajectory) at incredible speed and altitude.

A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding conventional warhead ballistic missiles, and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles will not explode, although chemical or biological warheads may disintegrate or explode and pose a risk of contaminating the environment. Each THAAD unit consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors, a fire control and communications unit, and AN/TPY-2 radar. The first operational deployment of the system was to Hawaii in 2009, followed by Guam in 2013 and there are currently five THAAD batteries worldwide, including in the United Arab Emirates. THAAD costs an estimated $800 million and is likely to add to the cost of maintaining the US military presence in South Korea – an issue in the US presidential campaign. Republican candidate Donald Trump has argued that US allies South Korea and Japan should pay more towards their own defense.

The deployment will have far reaching ramifications.

It will create problems as Russia and China oppose the move.

Russia warned on July 8 that the US deployment of an advanced missile defense system in South Korea would have «irreparable consequences». «The United States, supported by its partners, are continuing to build up the potential of the Asia-Pacific segment of the global anti-missile defense system, which undermines the established strategic balance in the (region) and beyond», the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Russia and China have been saying for months that the deployment is unnecessary and would tip the balance of power in the Pacific towards the United States.

Beijing sees THAAD as a serious threat to China’s interests in the region. For example, the US-deployed system would potentially be able to intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Beijing also believes the radar deployed with THAAD is able to see far into its territory. It will give Washington the potential to track China’s military capabilities.

China’s Foreign Ministry summoned the American and South Korean ambassadors to lodge protests over the announced deployment plans. «China strongly urges the United States and South Korea to stop the deployment process of the THAAD anti-missile system, not take any steps to complicate the regional situation and do nothing to harm China’s strategic security interests», the Ministry’s statement emphasizes.

The agreement reached by the US and South Korea on July 8 is just a part of a bigger process. It’s worth to remember that besides South Korea, Japan has considered deploying THAAD.

The US has stepped on the way to create a vast ballistic missile defense infrastructure in the region. In essence, the problem we see simmering in East Asia is similar to the problem currently boiling in Eastern Europe.

It’s important to note that stationing THAAD still leaves South Korea vulnerable to North Korea’s large-caliber multiple-rocket launchers. But the deployment of the AN/TPY-2 radar system lays down the basis for regional BMD upgrade and expansion to counter Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear potentials.

The THAAD’s radar can locate missiles far beyond North Korea’s territory, causing Russia and China to repeatedly voice serious concerns over the deployment. The X-band radar can spot missile as far as 2,000 km with forward-based mode and 600 km with terminal mode. It can be changed into the radar with a much longer detectable range. Russia and China have a good reason to believe that THAAD surveillance data could be transferred to other BMD assets protecting the continental US (CONUS). It should be taken into consideration that the THAAD deployed in South Korea will added to a THAAD battery deployed on Guam, two AN/TPY-2 radars deployed in Japan (at Shariki and Kyogamisaki), space-based assets, plus a range of ship-borne radars and larger land-based radars in other parts of the Pacific theatre. The deployment in South Korea might not guarantee the interception of ICBMs as they move fast while sophisticated penetration-aids confuse missile interceptors but it will greatly improve early tracking of Russian and Chinese missiles, depending on their launch point.

After the deployment of THAAD, it is reasonable to expect Russia and China to develop technology that would render THAAD useless; thus the beginnings of an arms race. The deployment of THAAD to South Korea could be the catalyst that sets the United States and Russia/China (and by association, South and North Korea) on a collision course. But this dangerous trend still can be reversed.

It’s expedient to wait till the final result of the US presidential race is known. The United States under a Donald Trump presidency is unpredictable at best. There is no way to tell if his government would continue to pursue the THAAD deployment in South Korea. It is certainly possible he would scupper the idea given his aversion to spending US dollars on South Korean security.

Under President Hillary Clinton, the architect of the «pivot to Asia», it can be safely assumed that the US will continue to expand its ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities in the region with China deploying additional military assets to the East and South China Seas in response.


North Korea’s nuclear program has been widely condemned by international community. It calls for collective, not unilateral, actions, such as the revival of the Six Party talks shut down in 2009.

Russia and China are leading Asia Pacific nations with common borders with North Korea. They are also permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Unlike the West, both maintain a dialogue with Pyongyang. They are indispensable actors in a good position to launch diplomatic initiatives. The UNSC members must continue to coordinate activities. The problem of North Korea is the issue that should unite the great powers, rather than divide them. The US unilateral action does the opposite. It is instigating an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region instead of seeking ways to effectively tackle the problem. The US could have done better by joining together with Russia and China instead of using the North Korean nuclear program as a pretext for launching a dangerous regional arms race with unpredictable consequences. This policy may backlash.