The United States said on March 7 that it had the (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. The action was prompted by North Korean missile tests on March 6 supervised personally the nation’s leader Kim Jong Un. It was announced that the test was conducted in preparation for delivering a strike against US bases in Japan as American forces hold military drills with South Korea. The four ballistic missiles fired by North Korea landed in the sea off Japan's northwest, angering Seoul and Tokyo. The launchings led South Korea to call for the accelerated deployment of THAAD.
US President Donald Trump held phone talks with and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn to discuss the launches. The US and Japan emphasized the tests were a clear provocation in violation of UN resolutions, with North Korea’s threat entering «a new phase».
It’s the background that matters. The US seized the moment as South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, whose administration agreed to the THAAD deployment, faces possible impeachment over a corruption scandal. The accelerated deployment could make it almost impossible for a successor to repeal the plans.
The deployment is taking place as the US is weighing the option of delivering a first strike against North Korea. And this is the time North Korea and Malaysia are balancing on the brink of a conflict. The United State and Malaysia are close allies and diplomatic partners.
The THAAD can intercept an incoming ballistic missile at its terminal phase at incredible speed and altitude. A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding, 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. There are currently five THAAD batteries worldwide, including in the United Arab Emirates. THAAD costs an estimated $800 million, adding to the cost of maintaining the US military presence in South Korea.
The system is expected to become fully operational by April. The plans are strongly opposed by Beijing. The system possesses a powerful radar that could be used to monitor Chinese airspace.
On terminal-based mode, the AN/TPY-2 radar’s range is limited to just 600-900. In the forward-based its range will increase to 2000 km, with interception altitude ranging between 40 kilometers within and 150 kilometers outside the atmosphere.
The deployment would open the door to a broader US ballistic missile defense (BMD) network in the Asia-Pacific. The THAAD surveillance data could be transferred to other BMD assets protecting the continental US. The THAAD deployed in South Korea will be 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 specifications enable the system to track and intercept medium- and long-range ballistic missiles to pose a threat to the China’s strategic weapons’ arsenal and the Russian Far East. Russia has warned in a statement 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 noted. The THAAD’s radar to be deployed in Qatar also constitutes a threat to Russia being encircled by AN/TPY-2 radars.
Whatever specifications the THAAD has, it’s the availability of BMD infrastructure that matters. It may start with the THAAD, to be followed by other, more capable, systems installed later. The deployment of the AN/TPY-2 radar lays down the basis for regional BMD upgrade and expansion to counter Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear potentials.
The deployment of THAAD to South Korea could set the United States and Russia/China (and by association, South and North Korea) on a collision course. To elude South Korea-based THAAD, Chinese analysts propose to deploy China’s strategic nuclear submarines to the Pacific Ocean for routine patrol. Other proposed countermeasures include concealment and redeployment of China’s strategic capabilities to reduce their exposure to the THAAD radar, and accelerated development of China’s own missile defense systems.
The deployment of the THAAD on the Korean peninsula will not prevent, but rather provoke North Korea’s efforts to enhance missile technology, including submarine-launched missiles to be fired out of the coverage area of the AN/TPY-2 radar.
China and Russia will also have to take appropriate measures in response to US increased military presence in South Korea. This will result in an arms race. Japan has also considered deploying the THAAD.
The situation presents a challenge, as well as opportunities for cooperation between Russia, the US and China. This is the right time for creative diplomacy. A common strategy on how to manage security and stability on the Korean peninsula is plainly lacking. The parties should explore creative ways to strengthen the Six-Party talks as a mechanism of conflict resolution, calling for negotiations without preconditions and military threats.
UN-brokered talks should start immediately to head off the threat of armed conflict. Then negotiations should be launched to discuss a potential peace treaty, security guarantees and a verifiable process of putting a stop to the nuclear program and the destruction of the capability to use weapons of mass destruction. The clock is ticking. With world’s attention focused on Syria, an armed conflict fraught with grave implications is about to spark in the Asia Pacific.