Working out the bugs

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Working out the bugs

Do we really need the U.S. missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) as a deterrence against the North Korean nuclear threat? The controversy over deployment of the U.S. missile shield among South Korea, the United States and China has stirred a heated debate on foreign and security affairs. We will present arguments from both sides of the military and diplomatic perspectives. First, we look at the military aspect of the Thaad system and whether it will provide effective and reliable protection against a North Korean nuclear attack.

The controversy over the Thaad system is abnormal and absurd. First of all, we know little about the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system. There are too many questions about it. If the long-range defensive weapons program developed by the United States over the last 24 years at a cost of around $10 billion is such a highly reliable defensive shield, why does the U.S. military own just three activated Thaad batteries? They can hardly offer sufficient protection for its own territory let alone other countries. At least three units would be needed to cover the Korean Peninsula alone.

There has been talk of additional production of Thaad systems to seven in a couple of years. Then, why doesn’t Japan - which is equally vulnerable to mid-range ballistic missile launches from North Korea - consider the introduction or deployment of the system? The Japanese defense ministry last year officially shot down the possibility of hosting a Thaad battery. None of the other key U.S. allies like Israel or member countries of NATO have said they were considering importing the prized U.S. missile defense system. Isn’t this a little strange?

One question leads to another. The claim by Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for Thaad development, that it has achieved 90 percent success rate in 11 intercept flight tests can hardly be trusted. The company has not clarified whether the system was able to strike and destroy the warhead from an incoming ballistic missile - like North Korea’s mid-range Rodong missile - flying at a speed of more than 5 kilometers per second or if its target had been a missile prototype fired by a slower-moving jet. We cannot believe the success rate when it is not clear what the target was.

The second question is whether the Thaad really can be relied upon to destroy a missile warhead completely and safely. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, recommended it be deployed on Korean soil saying there was a possibility that North Korea could raise the firing angle of its mobile Rodong missile to aim at South Korea in a shorter distance. Scaparrotti’s argument is persuasive on the grounds that North Korea has failed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a shorter-range Scud missile.

Then North Korea would have to place a nuclear warhead that normally weighs 1 to 2 tons in a mid-range missile and adjust the distance to strike South Korea. In a typical nuclear warhead, 70 percent is a shell made from a special alloy that can resist heat and pressure, and nuclear material makes up the remaining 30 percent. The 6-kilogram kill vehicle of the Thaad battery destroys targets by colliding with them through so-called kinetic energy. Even if the Thaad interceptor hits an incoming missile, it may not be able to destroy the warhead if it misses the bull’s eye.

The third question is why former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cut the budget for Thaad development in 2009, calling it a failed program. Even if the U.S. addressed technical problems since, it remains unclear whether the questions raised by the former defense secretary have been fully resolved.

If technical setbacks have been fully addressed, production costs should naturally go down. There is no reason why a battery should cost 1.8 trillion won ($1.65 billion). The fact that it would require enormous spending and huge space for its deployment underscores that the system is far from perfect. When an opposition lawmaker raised these issues in a Defense Ministry hearing, Defense Minister Han Min-koo sidestepped the issue by saying Thaad was a weapon system developed and deployed by the U.S.

We must not make the mistake of importing an unreliable system without a thorough investigation just because it is owned and used by the U.S. military.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is the editor-in-chief of the journal Defense 21 Plus.

BY Kim Jong-dae
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