North Korea has this year been conducting missile tests at an unprecedented pace, and is believed by some to be preparing for another nuclear test. In violation of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea continues overt nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development efforts. Although the scale of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program remains uncertain, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that it has enough plutonium to produce at least six nuclear weapons, and possibly up to sixty.
Earlier, North Korea was able to launch a new mid-range ballistic missile upto more than 1,400 km altitude. The Musudan’s potential 3,500-km range puts much of Asia and the Pacific within reach making it capable of striking U.S. forces throughout the region. Pyongyang also unveiled photos of the Earth taken by a camera mounted on the ballistic missile, and the move is being interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate its mastery over missile atmospheric re-entry technology. The complex atmospheric re-entry technology is key to ensuring the warhead is able to withstand the vibrations and heat of the flight’s terminal phase before the impact.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has also claimed to have tested an H-Bomb, in his fourth overt nuclear test since 2006. It has also threatened “indiscriminate” nuclear strikes on the US and South Korea, during their largest ever military drills Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. North Korea says it sees the annual US-South Korean war games as a rehearsal for invasion.
In June 2022, North Korea’s unprecedented launch of eight short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from several locations across the country has raised concerns in Tokyo that the nuclear-armed nation may add another dimension to its attempts to evade and overwhelm missile defenses.
More worryingly for Tokyo, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi described the event — multiple launches from multiple locations over a period of about 35 minutes — as “unusual,” indicating that the government believes the latest moves represent a new and more serious threat to Japan than past missile tests.
“It’s possible that the launches were aimed at improving (the North’s) continuous launch capabilities, which are necessary for conducting saturation attacks,” Kishi said. For North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, practicing these kinds of strikes could work to reinforce any belief he may have that his forces are capable of deterring or destroying his enemies — including with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Japan — despite its deployment of a multilayered missile-defense program in conjunction with the U.S., consisting of sea-based Aegis systems and ground-based Patriot Advanced Capabilities-3 systems — remains vulnerable to saturation attacks, according to some experts. They say a barrage of missiles could deplete available missile interceptors, allowing at least some of the weapons — potentially both conventional and nuclear-tipped — to slip through defenses.
According to Masashi Murano, an expert on Japanese security policy at the Hudson Institute think tank, these new-generation shorter-range missiles developed after 2019 have several traits that make them optimal for saturation attacks. The weapons are all solid-fueled, making them more mobile and easier to deploy in rapid-response situations. They are also capable of some degree of maneuverability, allowing for more accurate strikes than earlier missiles, including the extended-range Scud weapons fired in the Iwakuni attack simulation.
The leaders of the United States, South Korea and Japan in June 2022 expressed deep concern over North Korea’s missile tests and said they would cooperate more closely to address the threat posed by Pyongyang. U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid and agreed that the progress of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes posed serious threats to not only the Korean peninsula but also East Asia and the world.
The three leaders agreed to explore further means to reinforce “extended deterrence” against North Korea – the ability of the U.S. military, particularly its nuclear forces, to deter attacks on U.S. allies – along with security cooperation. “The deterrence capabilities of the Japan-U.S. and U.S.-Republic Of Korea alliances need to be upgraded as part of the essential effort to strengthen the trilateral partnership between Japan, the U.S., and ROK,” Kishida said.
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) geopolitics
The United States is committed to defending South Korea (also known as the Republic of Korea) under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The United States has nearly 29,000 troops deployed in the Korean peninsula for that purpose. In addition to U.S. troops, many of South Korea’s 630,000 troops and North Korea’s 1.2 million troops are stationed near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), making it one of the most heavily armed borders in the world.
In response to the increasing frequency of missile tests, the United States has deployed an anti-missile system in South Korea. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is located in the Seongju region of South Korea, one hundred and fifty-five miles from the northern border. The U.S. deployed the first elements of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea in March 2017, after North Korea launched at least four ballistic missiles, three of which landed within 350 km of the Japanese mainland.
The increasing unpredictability of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his continuing pursuit of nuclear missile capabilities are reasons to pursue deployment of the U.S. Army’s premier anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific.
The Japanese government welcomed it. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda said Japan supports the decision, adding that deployment of the system will contribute to regional peace and stability, reported by Kyodo News. In November 2015, Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said he would consider the U.S. deploying the THAAD in Japan to counter the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles.
North Korea has warned of a nuclear war in the region and has threatened to strengthen its armed forces if the missile deployment happens. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing remains resolutely opposed to THAAD. China condemned the plan, saying the deployment will “seriously damage” regional security in Northeast Asia. Beijing and Moscow say THAAD deployment could help U.S. radars spot missiles in their countries.
There is also resistance with South korea on deployment of THAAD. One is the fear of economic retaliation by China which has also seen to be happening. Lindsay Maizland reports “Korean TV shows and K-pop music videos have been blocked from streaming in China — one of their biggest and most lucrative markets — Chinese internet users have posted about boycotting Korean beauty products, and Korean celebrities have canceled tours in China. Apart from economic retaliation, there are also safety and environmental concerns among local residents in the area where THAAD is being deployed.
The New York Times reports that some critics in South Korea are also upset with the government’s choice of Seongju as the THAAD site because putting it there will mean that the country’s capital, Seoul, will be outside the coverage of THAAD’s intercept missiles.
Some also oppose THAAD pointing out THAAD’s limitations, “it cannot defend against a short range attack on the Seoul region, where nearly half the country’s population resides, and that in the event of a major attack THAAD’s 48 interceptor missiles will do little to stop the more than 1,000 missiles North Korea could fire, And they argue that the limited military advantage is not worth the cost of damaging relations with China.” write Brian Padden and Carla Babb in Global Security.
THAAD Anti-ballistic missile system
The THAAD (or Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missile system is designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach. The missile carries no warhead but relies on the kinetic energy of the impact to destroy the incoming missile. A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding conventional warhead and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, although chemical or biological warheads may disintegrate or explode and pose a risk of contaminating the environment.
THAAD consists of five major components: interceptors, launchers, an AN/TPY-2 X-band phased-array radar operating in its Terminal Mode (TM), THAAD Fire Control and Communications, and THAAD peculiar support equipment. A THAAD battery consists of nine launcher vehicles, each equipped with eight missiles, with two mobile tactical operations centers (TOCs) and the ground-based radar (GBR).
The THAAD interceptor is produced by the US Company Lockheed Martin. It is an extremely fast missile with a maximum speed of 2,800 metres per second (10,080km/h). It is capable of making interceptions at an altitude of 150- 200 km i.e. beyond the atmosphere. The THAAD Radar called AN/TPY-2, is an X-Band active electronically scanned array Radar, the world’s largest ground/air-transportable radar.
THAAD would bolster South Korea’s deterrence
South Korea already operates a variant of the US Patriot anti-missile system and further Patriot batteries are deployed in South Korea by US forces based there. But these have operational ranges of only 20 to 35 Kms and are intended to hit incoming missiles at relatively low altitudes. The THAAD missile has an estimated range of 200 km making it more effective than all existing and planned South Korean systems to defend military forces, population centers and critical targets at high altitude, over a larger area with more reaction time.
THAAD missile interceptor can hunt and blast incoming missiles with a 100% success rate. Since testing began in 2005, the AN/TPY-2 has yet to miss a target in over 50 system flight test missions and over a thousand satellite tracking exercises. A THAAD system in South Korea would nearly eliminate any threat of incoming missiles from North Korea
According to US, the system would complement the Patriot system already in South Korea by adding an additional layer of protection and bolster deterrence against North Korea by increasing uncertainty of its capabilities and complicating its security calculations.
South Korea’s is also purchasing 170 Taurus long-range air-to-surface missiles to further beef up its anti-nuclear and anti-missile capabilities.The Taurus KEPD 350K missiles which has a range of 500 kilometers can be carried by South Korean Air Force fighter jets . The system is designed to detect and hit targets hidden behind concrete walls as thick as six meters, and is not affected by North Korean jamming, according to Yonhap news agency.
The range of the Taurus indicates that, if fired from near the border between the two countries, all of North Korea will be within its range, Korea Jonngang Daily reports. The ability to see through and penetrate concrete means they are likely intended to be a key part of South Korea’s Kill Chain missile defense program and its policy of “active deterrence,” in which the country has vowed to preemptively detect and destroy active nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
THAAD’s X-band radar modes
AN/TPY-2 radars have two modes of operation: either as a forward-based target identification system or as a terminal tracking system. In forward-based mode, the AN/TPY-2 runs the show, it searches, acquires, tracks, and differentiate inbound threats. It is said that the portable radar system is so sensitive it can identify and track a game of catch up to 2,900 miles away
As noted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing is worried that THAAD’s X-band radar could reach deep into China if configured in “look mode.” Chinese argue that having an AN/TPY-2 in South Korea would improve the U.S. ability to intercept Chinese missiles and could even threaten the reliability of China’s nuclear second-strike capability.
China and Russia slam the move
China and Russia have objected to the move, “It will directly affect the strategic security of China and Russia respectively if it is deployed,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accompanied by his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov during press conference. “We both are gravely concerned about the US’s likely deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea,” Wang said. “The move goes beyond the actual defense needs of relevant countries.”
China questions why the US and South Korea want to deploy THAAD, an expensive system that only protects against missiles at altitudes between 40 and 150 kms; a single THAAD battery costs about $827.6 million. The Chinese argue that deploying the system would be an imprudent and exorbitant investment and overkill because Seoul is so close to North Korea.
Even a former United States Forces Korea commander, while supporting the deployment of THAAD, noted that “the best way to deliver a nuclear weapon to Seoul today is in the belly of an airplane” or even drones, if the North Koreans are able to improve their unmanned technology. Many Chinese analysts believe that, in fact, an overly hyped North Korean threat is Washington’s excuse to justify deployment of a system that actually targets China.
Lavrov slammed the United States for using the North’s tests as “an excuse, as a pretext” to deploy what he called the US’s “global antiballistic missile defense.” This seems to be reaction to consideration of Army Space and Missile Defense Command of THAAD deployments to Europe with EUCOM and the Middle East with CENTCOM.
Regional Missile defence cooperation
Chinese defense planners fear that a ring of X-band radars could make China’s nuclear deterrent less reliable by allowing additional warning time and better detection capabilities for the United States, tilting the strategic balance of power in Washington’s favor.
South Korea had earlier announced its plan for missile sharing agreement with US under which they shall allow South Korean and US militaries to share real-time information about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.
The US and Japanese have already integrated their missile defence systems. China fears that in future a joint missile defense system may emerge among South Korea, the US, and Japan, as well as increased military cooperation between the three countries. A regional missile defense network could complicate China’s ability to threaten or defend against US and allied assets in the region.
There is some merit to Chinese military concerns as US army is developing capability of Integrated Air and Missile Defense program that integrates all Air and Missile Defense (AMD) sensors.
US Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense program
US Army is developing Integrated Air and Missile Defense (AIAMD), a system of systems (ASoS) that integrates all Air and Missile Defense (AMD) sensors, weapons, and their respective command and control (C2) into a networked air and missile defense (AMD) system.
IBCS will integrate seven separate command-and-control systems currently in service including Patriot, Surface-Launched Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (SLAMRAAM), Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS), Improved Sentinel radar, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).
IBCS enables significantly enhanced aircraft and missile tracking improving the ability of combatant commanders and air defenders to make critical decisions within seconds.
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