WASHINGTON — Following North Korea’s July 28 launch of what the Pentagon has termed an intercontinental ballistic missile, the South Korean government has called for increased deployment of launchers for its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system — an apparent change of heart for the new government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
While the THAAD system technically came online earlier this year, the full system has not been deployed, with only two of the six launchers out in the field. Each THAAD unit consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors, a fire-control and communications unit, and an AN/TPY-2 radar. That radar has been a focal point of contention with China, who claims the radar could be used to spy into their territory.
The Moon government had previously slow-rolled the deployment of the remaining four THAAD launchers, citing the need for an environmental assessment that was skipped by the previous government. The president was quoted in local media calling for the “temporary” deployment of the remaining launchers.
Asked about Moon’s comments, a Pentagon spokesman said South Korea and the U.S. will “continue to coordinate on all aspects of the deployment of the THAAD system,” but referred any further questions to Seoul.
Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said THAAD remains a politically divisive issue in South Korea.
“There was a feeling within the government that the way the deployment was first announced, it didn’t go through due process, didn’t have an environmental assessment done and didn’t have National Assembly approval,” Town said. “And there is still a lot of the public who sees it as a measure to protect American military, given the placement and the way things were done. Public sentiment is still very divided as to whether or [not] it’s a good idea.”
That last point may hint at where other THAAD launchers could be deployed. Currently, the two launchers deployed at Seongju, roughly 135 miles from the South’s capital Seoul. New deployments would likely prioritize protecting the capital, said Town.
Moon’s sudden change of heart on the launchers would be easy to attribute to fears of North Korea’s missile test, but Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow with the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, thinks global politics is also a factor.
“It does not reflect a change in position per se, but is seen to reassure Washington. It would have been difficult for the Moon administration not to make some sort of move on THAAD in light of two ICBM tests,” Kim wrote in an email.
“The sudden about-face, without the due process the Moon administration had been stressing, indicates there might have been an understanding with Washington on THAAD if Pyongyang were to cross certain lines,” such as another ICBM test, Kim added. “But again, Seoul is stressing that this is only temporary in a move to appease Moon’s constituency and stick to the books.”
In light of the North Korean missile launches, THAAD has become a popular system to talk about, despite not being applicable to the ICBM threat and struggling with funding.
The U.S. Army has a requirement for nine THAAD batteries, but has only received approval and funding to build and field seven, with no funding on the horizon to complete the requirement.
There are five operational THAAD batteries: one deployed in Guam; one in South Korea; one being used for testing; and two batteries at Fort Bliss, Texas. The remaining two batteries have been activated and, once operational, will be stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. The test asset just completed a successful intercept test in late July from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.
The sixth battery is in training and will reach initial operational capability in the first quarter of fiscal 2018, and the seventh battery is accepting personnel and equipment and is expected to reach IOC by the fourth quarter of FY18.
There is talk about potentially deploying THAAD to the Central and European Command areas of operation, but nothing has moved past the discussion phase.
Jen Judson in Washington contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.