Washington mulls upgrading, separating Thaad

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Washington mulls upgrading, separating Thaad

The U.S. Department of Defense appears to be mulling upgrading its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, by separating its launchers from their battery and deploying them to different locations around the country.

The plan, part of a larger policy by the U.S. military to enhance its Thaad batteries around the world, is likely to generate another round of controversy in Korea amid signs that Washington may try to expand the size of the system as listed in its budget for the fiscal year 2021.

In a briefing on next year’s budget at the Pentagon last week, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency Vice Adm. Jon Hill explained what changes could be in store for Thaad as the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) completed its Joint Emergent Operational Need (JEON), which are the priorities set by the command that could impact a pending contingency operation.

JEON, according to Hill, will couple Thaad and the U.S. military’s Patriot missiles together into a single defense system in order to streamline their capabilities.

Hill explained the process in three phases, the first of which “is to extend or remote the launchers of Thaad” from the battery, which would be a novel use of the system that has not been employed on any of the U.S. military’s six other Thaad systems around the world.

This relocation of the Thaad launchers could allow for not only a repurposing to protect different targets, but also the deployment of “additional launchers,” Hill said.

The second and third phases would involve integrating the Patriot missiles with the Thaad radar and launchers, granting combatants the capability to use “the right missile for the right threat at the right time,” he added.

The Thaad battery in Seongju at present has six launchers, each equipped with a radar system. There are eight interceptor missiles for each launcher, putting the total number of Thaad missiles in Korea at 48.

What JEON suggests is that the United States is seeking to enable remote launches of Thaad interceptors from locations distant from where the launchers are placed, thus allowing the batteries to remain in Seongju while the launchers may be sent to locations such as the front around the demilitarized zone or USFK’s headquarters at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi.

Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, however, said Friday that no discussions have taken place with the United States on the Thaad batteries’ use outside of Seongju.

While Washington had briefed Seoul on plans to upgrade the Thaad system, ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo stressed any future plans for the batteries must be coordinated on.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of the Army’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year showed $49 million would be used for construction on the Thaad site in Seongju, which was described in the article as “Korea funded construction,” implying that Seoul would pay for the missile system.

The U.S. budget proposal raised red flags in Korea because the allies agreed in 2017 - when parts for the antimissile system arrived in Seongju amid a major backlash from local residents - that Seoul would provide the land for housing Thaad, while Washington covered other costs. The news also broke at a sensitive time for the allies as they’ve been holding discussions on the Special Measures Agreement, a bilateral cost-sharing deal for the upkeep of U.S. forces in Korea.

For Seoul, however, any changes to its existing arrangement on Thaad entails major risk in its relationship with China, which took a series of economic retaliations against Korea when the latter agreed to host the battery in 2016.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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