Sultan M Hali
THE US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in the Republic of Korea has been put on combat duty, according to US Army spokesperson in South Korea. The deployment of the system is controversial as China has been objecting to its placement in South Korea, ever since it was announced by the South Korean government regarding its deployment.
THAAD, formerly Theater High Altitude Area Defense, is a United States Army anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach. THAAD was developed after the experience of Iraq’s Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War in 1991. The THAAD interceptor carries no warhead, but relies on its kinetic energy of impact to destroy the incoming missile. A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding conventional warhead ballistic missiles, and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles will not detonate upon a kinetic energy hit.
According to Lockheed Martin, the U.S. company that manufacturers the system, there are four stages to its operation. First, a radar system identifies the incoming threat; then the target is identified and engaged. An “interceptor” is fired from a truck-mounted launcher, which destroys the missile using kinetic energy. Because the incoming missile is destroyed at a high altitude, the effects of weapons of mass destruction can be mitigated with the device. Defense Department announced it would deploy a system to South Korea, where it would be operated by U.S. forces stationed in the country. In a statement, the Pentagon described the move as a “defensive measure” against North Korea after the country continued to pursue nuclear weapons and tested a number of ballistic missile systems. North Korean state media has informed that the country has practiced attempts to hit U.S. military bases in Japan with a number of recently launched missiles. The number of missiles fired suggested that North Korea was training to see how quickly it could set up its extended-range missiles in a wartime setting.
The US is being coy that the THAAD missile system is a purely defensive system — THAAD systems don’t carry warheads, relying on the force of the “interceptor” to destroy the incoming missile rather than a detonation. US experts believe that THAAD is necessary to defend US assets in South Korea because North Korea is increasingly provocative and unpredictable. It could engage in nuclear blackmail. They assert that the American anti-missile system in South Korea should not be of concern to other countries, in particular, Russia and China, adding that the effect on the deterrents of Russia and China is minimal.
China has reacted strongly to the deployment. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, at a daily news briefing in Beijing stated: “We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our security interests.” China’s anger over THAAD has less to do with the missiles than with the sophisticated radar capabilities included in the system. These radars could be used to track China’s own missile systems, potentially giving the United States a major advantage in any future conflict with China. Some Chinese analysts argue that THAAD itself is of only limited use against North Korea anyway, as it would not be able to take out short-range missiles and artillery that do not reach high altitudes, hinting that the radar may be the real reason for the deployment.
More broadly, Beijing is concerned that the United States is hoping to use both South Korea and Japan to contain China in the future. “If South Korea insists on becoming a US puppet, China will have to act against it,” the Chinese state newspaper Global Times wrote in an editorial earlier this year. Chinese authorities called for immediately stopping the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, because they believe that the system is directed, in particular, against the PRC.
“China’s position on the THAAD issue has not changed. We oppose the deployment of the US missile system to South Korea and call on all parties to immediately stop this process. We are ready to take necessary measures to protect our interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang. Chinese reaction appears to be moving to hurt South Korea economically. Beijing has already placed restrictions on Korean businesses that operate in China, including shutting down stores of Lotte, a South Korean conglomerate that offered a golf course as land for THAAD use. Lotte stands to lose $179 million if its China-based stores can’t reopen.
More measures are expected. Chinese travel agencies are stopping the sale of tickets to South Korea, and there have been growing calls in China to boycott South Korean products and even cancel tours by K-pop stars. Such moves carry significant weight. South Korea has grown increasingly dependent economically on China in recent years. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the value of its exports to the country was $142 billion in 2014 — more than twice the value of its exports to the United States. On the other hand, China is being even handed and although it is regarded as a key ally of North Korea, it has shown itself to be exasperated by Pyongyang’s recent missile launches. Beijing recently blocked coal imports from North Korea, striking a major blow to the isolated nation’s economy. The US would be advised to not sully the Far East by its military presence and use proxies to contain China.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.