After North Korean Missiles Fly, THAAD Missile Defense Suddenly Arrives

After literally years of debate and planning, America’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system has finally begun to arrive in South Korea. The system’s long-awaited deployment came just hours after North Korea executed a series of simultaneous ballistic missile launches that captured the world’s attention. Although THAAD’s emergence on the Korean Peninsula was announced nearly a day after the North Korean missiles flew, it is likely that these missile tests were actually a preemptive show of defiance by Pyongyang towards the anti-ballistic missile system’s looming arrival.

Monday’s missile launches didn’t showcase any new capabilities, but how the missiles were fired, and where they were fired towards says volumes about the intent of the exercise. Three out of the four modified Scud missiles flew from North Korea’s west coast, across the country and out into the Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan. The total distance flown by the missiles was roughly 600 miles. The fourth missile landed short, in another area of Sea of Japan. It remains unclear if this was by design or by failure.

If the missiles had been launched from North Korea’s east coast they would have been able to reach much of the lower two-thirds of Japan’s Honshu island and all of Kyushu island. 


Clearly, the test was intended to underline the fact that even North Korea’s cruder ballistic missiles are capable of hitting US interests far off the Korean Peninsula, and could do so in a barrage. In fact, North Korean state news said as much, stating that the test saw their Hwasong ballistic missile division “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.” 


Not just that, but these missiles flew outside of the known engagement envelope of a theoretical THAAD battery placed towards the southern end of South Korea. In other words, the missiles were a clear reminder that THAAD—while it can protect much of South Korea against certain threats flying certain profiles—is in no way a panacea for North Korea’s regional ballistic missile capabilities. North Korea launched a similar salvo of missiles back in September, also at a time when the deployment of THAAD was topping the news cycle, and that launch had a similar aim.


The fact that four missiles were launched simultaneously in a similar direction also acted as a reminder that North Korea can and would saturate US, Korean and Japanese targets in an attempt to overwhelm regional missile defense systems. Although sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense, which is fielded by both the US and Japanese navies (at least three of South Korea’s Sejong the Great class Aegis-equipped destroyers will be upgraded soon with a similar capability) has been tested against limited multiple layer attacks, even these advanced assets’ ability to counter larger barrages of ballistic missiles of various capabilities and flight profiles is doubtful. THAAD, in its current form, also has limited capabilities when it comes to high saturation attacks. A follow-on system dubbed THAAD-ER that is now starting development aims to improve this aspect of the weapon system, along with many others, but that system is still years away—that is if it ever gets fielded at all.

The hard truth is that the best place to take out these missiles is on the ground, but that would mean a full-on war had already erupted and there still is a good chance that North Korean forces would get off large quantities of missiles before US-South Korean battle plans could mature. Also, as Pyongyang continues to make strides in solid-fueled missile capabilities, they will be able to deploy mobile ballistic missiles that can be launched far quicker than their liquid-fueled counterparts. This makes finding and taking out these missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) preemptively an ever tougher proposition. 

As for how North Korea could have executed such a tailored show of force before the news of THAAD’s arrival on the Korean Peninsula was made public, well that’s not too hard to figure out. North Korea’s intelligence gathering apparatus run deep in South Korea, and it’s not like such a monumental military milestone just happens overnight. It is very possible, if not probable that North Korea knew about THAAD’s arrival days before its first components rolled off a C-17 at Osan Air Base last evening. Otherwise we can mark this rounds of launches up to a very peculiar coincidence.  

The US is using North Korea’s most recent missile test as a springboard for justifying THAAD’s presence on the Korean Peninsula, with Admiral Harry Harris Jr., head of the US Pacific Command, stating yesterday that the “continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea.”

All this comes as the US and South Korea are undergoing their annual “Foal Eagle” war games, which always causes heightened tensions on the Peninsula, and as a new American President has yet to clarify his administration’s policy towards North Korea. It also comes as the gulf between Beijing and Pyongyang appears to be widening at an accelerated pace. This development is especially troublesome because China has been long-viewed as the one power that could actually have a serious impact on North Korea’s strategic and geopolitical trajectory. 

The arrival of THAAD in the region will certainly disgruntle China who has long argued against its deployment, positing that THAAD poses a threat to the credibility of their own nuclear deterrent capabilities and thus the strategic balance in the region. But with Kim Jong Un pushing to obtain long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads as fast as possible and at all costs, Beijing has little grounds to argue against THAAD’s deployment. This reality certainly won’t help when it comes to deteriorating relationship between the once extremely close neighbors, and just because China’s arguments against THAAD’s deployment may be weakened by North Korea’s actions, Beijing will surely respond militarily to its presence. 

The strategic picture on the Korean Peninsula continues to morph in unprecedented ways, as does that of the region as a whole. Hold on folks, it’s going to be a wild ride. 

Update: 1:15pm PST- Make sure to check out our follow-up post on THAAD’s suitability to actually accomplish the ballistic missile defense mission in South Korea here.

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