U.S. Hints at Deploying More THAAD Launchers in Korea

  • By Yang Seung-sik

    February 14, 2020 13:38

    A senior U.S. military officer has stirred up a hornets' nest by hinting at the possibility of deploying more launchers for a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery in South Korea.

    Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, was speaking at a Pentagon press briefing on Monday. "If you can separate the launchers away from the battery, that gives you a lot of flexibility on the peninsula," he said. "So you could put the battery further back, you can move the radar back, you can put the launchers forward, you can bring in additional launchers."

    The deployment of the first THHAD battery in Seongju in the southeast, which remains incomplete, got Korea into massive trouble with China and forced it to endure a yearlong boycott that devastated businesses here and is still not fully over.

    A THAAD battery consists of four key parts -- launchers, interceptor missiles, fire control units and a radar.

    Seoul has already pledged to Beijing that it would not permit the U.S. to station more THAAD batteries here. Whether Beijing would consider the deployment of extra launchers a violation of that promise remains to be seen.

    Hill made the off-the-cuff remarks when he was talking about the "joint emergent operational need (JEON)" for the U.S. Forces Korea.

    JEON is a concept for integrating missile defense resources such as THAAD, Patriot missiles and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors to make them more effective.

    Hill said that this integration was exactly what former USFK chief Vincent Brooks was asking for when the THAAD was deployed here in 2017. "So that -- that's exactly what [Brooks] at the time was asking for, is that ability to -- to move the battery back, add additional launchers or move them forward and take care of southern ports, for example, instead of protecting the north," he said.

    The THAAD anti-missile system the USFK has deployed in Seongju is controlled by wires, so launchers are immobile once attached to the battery. But the U.S. military has been testing a remote-control system to overcome this constraint since last year and achieved some success.

    The Pentagon is also working out a plan to launch THAAD missiles using the Patriots' radar system. China might see that as a fresh deployment if they are connected to Patriot radars in various locations where USFK troops are stationed.

    But Beijing is chiefly concerned about the powerful X-band radar that comes with the THAAD battery, which it believes could be used to spy on its military maneuvers, rather than about the actual rockets.

    "It's been pointed out that a single THAAD battery couldn't defend the entire Korean Peninsula," said Prof. Park Won-gon of Handong Global University. "The U.S. presumably feels the need to reinforce the defense system because it could now be breached by a series of new North Korean weapons" like the Iskander-class missiles the North unveiled last year.

    For now, the USFK still has difficulty delivering fuel to the THAAD battery because protesters continue to block the access road and it has to be helicoptered in. An ongoing study on environmental impact, which had been skipped in the hasty deployment by the previous government, seems to be dragging on.

    "We just don't know how much longer it will take before the THAAD deployment is complete," a military officer here said.

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