In South Korea, at the end of May, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile transporters were seen delivering missiles to the base where the South Korean THAAD battery is stationed. At first, it was thought that South Korea was finally accepting delivery of more THAAD missiles. It wasn’t, and with the replacement missiles came replacements for the fire control system and other electronic items. The delivery of new THAAD components and subsequent removal of the items replaced was unannounced. This was to avoid a political confrontation over the replacement operation. South Korean politics supports factions that are extremely suspicious of anything U.S. forces do and will call out followers to protest and often block or delay movements of troops or equipment.
After the initial arrival of the South Korea THAAD battery in early 2017, there were political disputes in South Korea about bringing in all six THAAD TEL launcher vehicles. Initially, only two TEL vehicles, and 16 THAAD missiles, were in South Korea. China was very upset about the presence of THAAD and put an enormous amount of diplomatic and economic pressure on South Korea to keep THAAD out of South Korea. The reason is simple; THAAD limits the effectiveness of Chinese missile threats against South Korea, Japan and U.S. forces in the region. The protests can be so large and sustained that movements of new troops and equipment to a base have to be carried out via helicopter. The THAAD components were too heavy for that, so secrecy and surprise were the best alternative and it worked.
The most recent missile movement in South Korea was described as the delivery of new missiles to replace existing ones that had reached the end of their “shelf-life”. Many South Korea continue to believe it was the delivery of additional THAAD missiles. But the new missiles were not delivered via a TEL vehicle, but on a transport vehicle that could also carry out the older THAAD missiles, still in their original storage/launch containers.
Missiles like THAAD are stored in and fired from sealed containers. The status of the missile can be monitored externally via sensors and missile system self-checks. Plug in a cable connected to test equipment and you get a status report on missile within the sealed container. Complex missile systems like THAAD, AEGIS, Patriot and many smaller missiles carried on aircraft, ships and land vehicles operate under similar conditions and each has a “shelf-life” that varies between ten and twenty years. THAAD missiles are said to have a self-life of fifteen years so some South Koreans wondered how the THAADs in South Korea could be due for replacement when the first THAAD units did not become operational until 2008. The answer was that new features were available, but there may have been other reasons as well.
The electronic monitoring systems confirm the ability of a missile to still perform but the monitoring system also confirms when it is time for missile replacement is approaching. The “retired” missiles are either refurbished to “like new” condition and returned to service or scrapped with explosive elements safely disposed of and classified components thoroughly destroyed. Sometimes classified components are not completely destroyed, but that’s another story. It’s possible something in the South Korean THAAD missiles had shortened shelf-life but there has been no official comment on that. Because THAAD is a new weapon it’s shelf like is only estimated and it is not unusual for a new missile to be around for quite a while before its actual shelf life is confirmed. Since missile shelf lives have been used for over half a century it is possible to use all that experience to make a good estimate of new missile shelf life.
Meanwhile, a new version of THADD is in development as well as new features for current THAAD missiles. The THAAD ER (Extended Range) is not yet in service. The ER version has a small second stage that would extend the intercept range of THAAD and enable the interception of faster (longer range) incoming missile warheads. ER is not expected to enter service, if at all, until the late 2020s.
Each THAAD battery usually has 48 missiles carried and launched from six TEL (transporter erector launcher) vehicles. In addition to the launcher vehicles, there is a fire control and communications system carried in several vehicles. This includes an X-Band radar. The gear for each six TEL battery costs $800 million. There are currently seven THAAD batteries in service.
The 6.2 meter (18 foot long) THAAD missiles are 340mm in diameter and weigh 900 kg (1,980 pounds). This is about the same size as the Patriot anti-aircraft missile, but twice the weight of the anti-missile version of the Patriot. THAAD is currently a single stage missile. The range of THAAD is over 200 kilometers, max altitude is 150 kilometers, and it moves at a speed of 2.8 kilometers a second. THAAD is intended for short (like SCUD) or medium range (up to 2,000 kilometer) IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles).
THAAD began development during the late 1980s and entered service in 2008. Originally the army planned to buy at least 18 launchers, 1,400 missiles, and 18 radars. That goal has been adjusted as the number of export customers increases. THAAD is a step up from the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile, which is an anti-aircraft missile system adapted to take out incoming missiles. The PAC-3 works, but it has a limited (35 kilometers) range.
The latest testing firings of THAAD were in July 2017. These two interception tests were successful as were the other six such tests conducted since 2010. There have been 28 test firings of THAAD since 1995 and 22 were successful. Many of the tests before 2005 did not involve attempting to actually intercept an incoming missile warhead. Many of the tests since 2008 were to verify that new features, like the ability to hit targets closer to sea level, and to share data with Patriot anti-missile systems, as well as verifying that the overall system worked.
THAAD entered when the first THAAD anti-ballistic missile (ABM) battery was deployed. This followed a 2006 firing test that used regular army personnel instead of manufacturer technicians. In 2009 the second battery was formed. By 2012 there were five batteries with more on order by a growing list of export customers. THAAD batteries are deployed in Guam, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Romania, and South Korea.
The most newsworthy foreign customer for THAAD is South Korea, which received a THAAD battery in 2017. While THAAD cannot intercept an ICBM warhead near its target, THAAD can intercept the ballistic missiles North Korea had been testing that could, in theory, be used as ICBMs. North Korean tests of their Hwasong 14 system had the missile landing less than a thousand kilometers distant and that flight profile is one THAAD could handle. The U.S., South Korea and Japan are discussing the usefulness of using current anti-missile systems (mainly Aegis and THAAD) available in or near South Korea to intercept further North Korean ballistic missile tests which are illegal and meant to be threatening. South Korea had the final say on this because North Korea had been threatening to invade again, as it did in 1950, as ordered by the Soviet Union. While North Korea would probably fail once more, any new invasion would put much of South Korea’s population and GDP at risk because the capital, Seoul, is within artillery range of North Korea. This has always been a factor when considering how to deal with North Korean threats and North Korea knows it. But North Korea seems determined to develop nuclear weapons carried by ballistic missiles it can use against the United States, Japan and South Korea. The arrival of THAAD in South Korea coincided with a new government in the United States which put more pressure on North Korea to scrap its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid. North Korea participated in negotiations more than it ever had before. But while foreign media was told by North Korea that negotiations were continuing, leaked internal documents showed North Korean officials were being told that North Korea would not, under any circumstances, give up its nukes and ballistic missiles.
Neither of the missiles or nukes are reliable enough to be considered operational, but North Korea is still working on them. That effort has been slowed down by harsher economic sanctions implemented since 2017. On top of that there was the economic damage done by the late 2019 covid19 virus that started in China and soon spread to Korea. By January 2020 North Korea was closing its Chinese border, something it had never done before. North Korea was desperate to keep covid19 out of North Korea because North Korea had the worst national health system in East Asia and believed initially, it would suffer catastrophic losses if the virus spread. Covid19 was not as lethal as first thought while the poor state of North Korean transportation systems (roads and rail) prevented spread of the virus from some border areas and the national capital. Despite all the virus fear, work continued, more slowly, in missiles and nukes.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has modified its AEGIS software and Standard anti-aircraft missile system to operate like the PAC-3. This system, the RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3), has a longer range than THAAD (over 500 kilometers) and max altitude of 160 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the Standard 2, and costs over three million dollars each. The Standard 3 has four stages. The first two stages boost the interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the interceptor farther beyond the earth's atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth stage is the nine kg (20 pound) LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close on the target and ram it. There is a new member of the SM series, SM-6 which will complement and eventually replace SM-3 and also has anti-missile capabilities.
Thus the U.S. has three anti-missile systems available in and around Korea, although one of them currently only operates from cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles. AEGIS can also be operated from land bases, and the manufacturer is offering such a system to export customers and already has several orders. In addition, there is GBI, a system specifically designed for ICBMs and only stationed in North America.