US Preps for THAAD Missile Test Against IRBM As North Korean Threat Rises

Long-planned experiment comes amid calls from U.S. officials to broadly expand America’s missile defense apparatus.

byJoseph Trevithick|
North Korea photo


The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) says it will conduct another flight test of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system sometime in July 2017. Though planned long in advance, the experiment has taken on a new urgency after North Korea conducted the first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the state of Alaska on July 4, 2017, not to mention the successful firing of a intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) back in April 2017.

On July 7, 2017, MDA confirmed it would fire a THAAD interceptor from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska at an unspecified target by the end of the month. The test, known as Flight Test THAAD-18 or FTT-18, Chris Johnson, an MDA spokesman, told multiple

news outlets that the agency would not release the time or date of the test beforehand and offered few details about the upcoming event.

However, in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee on June 7, 2017, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Syring, then head of MDA, offered considerably more information. “In FTT-18 THAAD will demonstrate an intercept of a separating IRBM target using the THAAD radar, launcher, fire control and communication, interceptor operations and engagement operations,” he explained.

IRBM stands for intermediate-range ballistic missile, a type of weapon that North Korea had already successfully demonstrated by that time. With a operational IRBM, which technically would have a range of between approximately 1,850 to 3,420 miles, North Korean forces could reach targets anywhere in South Korea, Japan, or even the American island of Guam, home to significant U.S. military facilities, with these potentially nuclear-capable missiles.


According to Syring’s testimony, by the end of 2017, MDA also plans to conduct an endo-atmospheric test of a THAAD interceptor against a mock medium-range ballistic missile – defined as having range a range of between 620 and 1,860 miles – as well as “associated objects,” possibly simulated decoys. This experiment, FTT-15, is only intended to gather data. 

By the end of 2018, the agency hopes to have completed yet another test involving THAAD, in cooperation with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, against a surrogate IRBM. This proposed flight is known as Flight Test Operational-03 Event 2, or FTO-03 E2.

THAAD has had a long and often troublesome development since the 1990s and these continued tests are critical, since successful employment of the system is a complicated proposition even if the system works perfectly. The entire process relies primarily on the trailer-mounted AN/TPY-2 X-band radar to track a re-entry vehicle falling at potentially hypersonic speeds towards its target so the interceptor can blast it out the sky. This is best described as trying to hit a bullet with another bullet.

Lockheed Martin

THAAD has a number of potential limitations, as we at The War Zone noted when the system first appeared in South Korea in March 2017:  

For the interceptors to be truly effective, commanders have to position the launchers near potential targets, along likely flight paths, pointed opposite where the warheads might fall. Based on publicly available information, the weapon can only pinpoint and fire at targets in an 120-degree cone and over a finite range. Not just that, but THAAD has not been thoroughly tested or lacks engagement capability against targets that fly extreme apogee flight profiles, a tactic North Korea could use to hit targets in Seoul and military bases not too far south of the DMZ.

Even if the battery is situated properly, that might not be enough. The single THAAD battery in South Korea has just two launchers, each with eight interceptors at the ready. In any realistic future attack scenario, North Korea would launch dozens of missiles or more at targets across the southern portion of the peninsula and potentially beyond, using both road-mobile weapons, and in the not so distant future, even ballistic missiles launched by submarines. Those submarines will also likely voyage outside of THAAD's engagement envelope before launch.

Both of these launch methods are very hard to track, often alerting U.S. early warning satellites only as the missiles take flight, leaving little time for missile defenders to reorient themselves towards the threat. American and allied forces would need dozens of launchers and a constantly active constellation of space, surface and ground-based sensors spread across East Asia to have a reasonable chance at not getting overwhelmed by the ensuing barrage.

In May 2017, the U.S. military declared that the initial system in South Korea was operational. Since then, South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in has halted the deployment of additional interceptors pending an environmental review. The U.S. military has additional THAAD interceptors and at least one AN/TPY-2 radar on Guam. The United States and its allies, most notably the United Arab Emirates, have placed or plan to emplace various components of the system in the Middle East, too. The U.S. Army has its own AN/TPY-2 radars, but no THAAD interceptors, at sites in Turkey and Israel.

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Of course, THAAD is just one component of the U.S. military’s layered ballistic missile defense apparatus. Unfortunately, the other components are similarly in need of additional tests and refinements.

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In May 2017, MDA concluded the first test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system against an ICBM-class target, which was apparently successful. However, there was limited information about the exact parameters of the experiment, making it difficult to judge the results conclusively. Regardless, U.S. officials will have to repeat the feat multiple times before anyone could reasonably conclude the system is reliable. MDA expects the next GMD flight test will come in the fourth quarter of the 2018 fiscal year.

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Then in June 2017, there was a setback as a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile failed to destroy a mock MRBM in a test over the Pacific Ocean. The first intercept attempt in February 2016 had been successful. The mid-course intercept SM-3 Block IIA and other parts of the Aegis BMD system, fill the range and capability gaps between the terminal phase intercept Patriot and THAAD systems and the mid-course intercept GMD. Though intended primarily to defeat IRBM and MRBM-class weapons, SM-3 Block IIA may be able to knock down ICBMs under certain conditions.  If all goes according to plan, Aegis radar-equipped warships such as the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and land-based configurations, known as Aegis Ashore, will ultimately be capable of employing these interceptors. At present, the only Aegis Ashore sites are in Europe, but Japan is looking to field the concept in light for North Korea's expanding missile arsenal.

Critics of the U.S. military’s missile defense plans cite these spotty track records and drawn-out test schedules as evidence of the overall concept’s inherent problems. The added difficulty of differentiating real warheads from metallic balloons and other decoys has only underscored these concerns. Additionally, broad coverage systems, like ground-based interceptors, rely on a rickety constellation of space, ground and sea-based sensors and communications nodes in order to just begin an engagement sequence. It's far from clear if testing of any component America's ballistic missile defense scheme has replicated real-world conditions, where the whole system isn't primed for an intercept, and usually looking in the right direction to make it happen. Suffice to say, the idea that the U.S. has a reliable missile shield is fantastically optimistic at best. 

“It’s at least as good as a coin toss,” Henry "Trey" Obering, a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General and former head of MDA, who now works on directed energy issues for Booz Allen Hamilton, told The Financial Times in July 2017.

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Still, the U.S. military contends that these issues just show a need to speed the process up, fund additional research and development, and accept more failures on the path to eventual success, especially in light of rapid ballistic missile advancements in potentially hostile countries, such as North Korea.

North Korean premier “Kim Jong Un has gone very fast, and we have to step up and go fast in response,” U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told Stars and Stripes in July 2017. “We are not going fast. We are so risk-averse that we only test every 18 months.”

In 2017 alone, North Korea has tested at least a dozen ballistic missiles of various types, including successful launches of four heretofore unseen types, one of which was the Hwasong-14 ICBM and another the Hwason-12 IRBM. There were other notable tests of the solid-fueled KN-15 MRBM, and an improved Scud-type SRBM with what appeared to be a maneuverable re-entry vehicle. North Korea has begun using very steep parabolic flight profiles for its longer-ranged missile tests, too.

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“We’ve seen things like, ‘He launches and fails, launches and fails. He [Kim] is a fool. He doesn’t know what he is doing,’” he continued in the interview. “No, that is actually the way you build rockets. The best way to build rockets, the best way to move fast, is to build it, test it, instrument it, learn from your failures.”

Hyten’s complaints echoed similar comments Vice Admiral Syring had made in June 2017. “I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat, I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today,” Syring told the assembled American legislators. “It is incumbent upon us to assume that North Korea today can range the Unites States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead. Everything we are doing plans for that contingency.”

Of course, North Korea has the benefit of being an insular dictatorship that can continue development of missiles regardless of cost or failures, even to the detriment of its own people. The United States is a democracy beholden to its people and has an active free press willing to criticize defense spending priorities. As such, the U.S. military will always be more concerned about the optics of failed tests, even if they provide vital data that ultimately helps make missile defense systems such as THAAD viable. On top of that, unable to keep things as hidden away as a repressive totalitarian government, American officials know that repeated failures, whatever the results, can only feed into North Korea’s often belligerent propaganda.

A THAAD launcher arrives in South Korea in March 2017., USAF

But U.S. lawmakers would appear to agree that more tests are worth the risk, and did so before North Korea’s latest missile test, with both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees looking to add significant amounts of funding for missile defense into the defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year. In June 2017, Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republic and head of the House Armed Services Committee, had said he was “astonished” by how little money President Donald Trump’s administration had allocated for these programs in their initial proposal. 

Before that, in May 2017, a bi-partisan group of Senators had introduced the Advancing America’s Missile Defense Act of 2017, which, if passed into law, would promote continued development and expansion of the U.S. missile defense shield and calling for expanded purchases of interceptors, radars, and other systems. Perhaps most importantly, there have been renewed calls for a long-stalled GMD site somewhere on the east coast of the United States. At present, there are only GMD interceptors situated in Alaska and California. MDA is also considering adding an all-new layer to the missile defense scheme in the form of drones armed with lasers to destroy missiles during their initial boost phase. In 2011, the Pentagon had canceled a previous boost phase intercept program centered on a modified Boeing 747 airliner with a massive turreted laser.

Congress is still in the process of finalizing the annual National Defense Authorization Act, but it seems likely that these missile defense additions will remain in place given North Korea’s recent activities. There’s also the real possibility we may begin to see more active testing of those systems, whether they’re ready or not.

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