Amid rising tensions with North Korea, the United States and South Korea agreed this week to move up the timeline to install a controversial missile-defense system in Seongju. Just how effective that system will be, however, remains in question.
The U.S. and South Korea hope the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system will at the least deter Kim Jong-un, who has conducted a series of missile tests over the last few months, from continuing the tests. At best, they hope that THAAD will intercept all or most medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired towards South Korea. But given THAAD’s limited track record, some missile-defense experts are skeptical it will be reliable.
“This is one of those areas where the proponents of missile defense are 100 percent certain that it will work all the time and opponents are 100 percent certain it will never work,” said Gary Samore, who served as the Obama White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. “Nobody knows how effective THAAD will be because it hasn’t been actually tested under wartime conditions that it would face.”
After failing several tests in the 1990s following its launch, THAAD has completed 13 successful missile intercepts in 13 attempts since 2006, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
While that’s still an impressive record compared to other systems, these tests don’t always tell the full story. They are often conducted in relatively favorable conditions, and usually involve knocking down only one or two missiles at a time. In fact, THAAD has yet to be tested against more than two ballistic missiles, so it’s unclear how it would hold up if North Korea tried to overwhelm the system.
“These tests are scripted for success. They’re not trying to capture all the uncertainties of actual battle,” said Philip Coyle, who was an assistant secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration. “I would be concerned that in actual combat there would be problems that had not yet been captured with THAAD.”
On top of that, the one THAAD battery being installed in South Korea can provide only so much cover (THAAD missiles have a range of 125 miles and an altitude of 93 miles). Based on simulation data, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported in 2015 that while a single THAAD battery could defend most of the country from a limited amount of medium-range ballistic missiles, it would take three to protect the entire country from a full North Korean barrage. And THAAD won’t help protect Seoul from another major security threat: short-range artillery and rockets.
Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasized that the deployment of THAAD is a “necessary, but not sufficient” component of the larger plan to defend against North Korean attacks. THAAD will work in conjunction with the Patriot and Aegis defense systems, which defend against shorter-range and longer-range missiles, respectively.
“I’ve yet to meet the weapons system that can handle everything,” Karako added. “It’s not about an impenetrable shield. It’s about introducing doubt into the calculus of North Korea and others that they may not succeed in escalating a conflict in certain ways.”
Installing this THAAD battery, which is projected to cost more than $1 billion, has taken significant time and effort. While the U.S. and South Korea first agreed to deploy the interceptor in July of 2016, the process didn’t begin officially begin until March of this year. Vice President Mike Pence and acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn announced Monday that they would accelerate deployment following North Korea’s failed missile test Sunday.
While THAAD’s deployment has received mixed reviews in South Korea, China has been vehemently opposed to it from the start. Chinese officials are concerned THAAD’s radar could also be used to detect missiles in their country, not just North Korea, which they believe could jeopardize their national security. China has recently retaliated by imposing unofficial economic sanctions against South Korea.
James Winnefeld, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is confident THAAD will be an effective system not only operationally, but symbolically.
“It underscores our commitment to South Korea, which sends a signal to the North: We’re still invested in this place, we have an alliance with them, and we will fulfill our obligations under the alliance,” Winnefeld said.
This is all occurring against the backdrop of the next South Korean election, which takes place May 9. The election was called after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, who first negotiated THAAD’s deployment with the Obama administration, was held up by the courts last month.
The front-runner to replace her, Democratic Party of Korea nominee Moon Jae-in, has said he would review THAAD’s deployment if elected, another reason why the current government is rushing to install the system. The other leading candidate in the race, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, said he would abide by the move to deploy THAAD, after initially opposing it.
But regardless of the outcome, it will likely be difficult to reverse THAAD’s deployment at this point, both from a practical and political standpoint.
“The pressures to have missile-defense deployments like this aren’t going away anytime soon,” Karako said. “The strategic need is not going to change.”
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