North Korea's Worst Nightmare: South Korea Wants Its Very Own THAAD 'Missile Shield'
In the spring of 2017, the United States began deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile batteries to South Korea. The expensive THAAD system is designed to shoot-down ballistic missiles on their terminal trajectory as they plunge down their targets.
While North Korea will likely soon possess missiles that can reach the West Coast of the United States, South Korea has for decades been exposed to North Korea’s large and diverse arsenal of tactical and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
However, THAAD is controversial. Beijing opposes it, as do many people in South Korea. Both the South Korean and American presidents have at times supported or questioned its deployment.
Therefore, it’s significant that Seoul is working to deploy its own, indigenous ballistic-missile defense shield called the Korean Air and Missile Defense network, which will function independently of the United States.
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This multi-layered system is designed to engage targets at different altitudes and stages of their trajectory — not only to counter different types of ballistic missiles, but to give the defenses more than one opportunity to thin out an incoming barrage.
The new shield will give Seoul defenses it can rely on regardless of shifting political winds at home or abroad—and a key ingredient appears to be Russian missile technology.
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S-300, South Korea-style
The latest addition to South Korea’s air defenses is the KM-SAM Cheongung medium-range surface-to-air missile system and its new PIP missile interceptor, a “hit-to-kill” weapon that relies on the 880-pound missile colliding with its target, rather than detonating a warhead in its vicinity. A proximity-fused anti-aircraft variant is already in service.
Intended to replace Seoul’s 24 aging MIM-23 Hawk missile batteries, the Cheongung is reportedly already in limited operational service, with at least one battery deployed to Korea’s maritime border with North Korea.
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In the spring of 2017 the PIP missile began its final tests, during which it shot down five of five practice ballistic missile targets. The Korean military announced in June 2017 that it would begin full-scale production of the missile at a price of $1.3 million each, with completion of the order by 2018 or 2019.
The KM-SAM stems from cooperation with Russia dating back to 1992, when Seoul first acquired radar technology from Moscow. By 1998, South Korean firms including Samsung and LIG Nex1 began developing the KM-SAM based on design elements of the formidable Russian S-300 and later the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, though Cheongung is a shorter-range system.
In fact, the Russian collaborator, missile-design firm Almaz-Antey, made its own higher-capability version of the Cheongung called the S-350 Vityaz, a battery of which was reported in Syria in September 2017.
A Cheongung battery can hit targets as high as 50,000 to 60,000 feet and defend a 25 miles radius. Each unit includes a truck-mounted multi-function Passive Electronically Scanned Array radar that can track, and identify and generate targeting data for targets within 60 miles. The blocky three-dimensional can track at least 40 contacts at once, and is hardened verses electromagnetic pulses such as could be generated by a nuclear blast.
Firing solutions are relayed from the battery command vehicle to up to six Transporter-Erector-Launcher vehicles with eight missile cells each. The KM-SAM missiles, measuring 275 millimeters in diameter, apparently owe much to the shorter-range 9M96 missiles used in the S-400 SAM system, especially the vertical cold-launch technology.
This means that the missiles are ejected from launch tubes using compressed gas before igniting their rocket motors, giving them better environmental tolerance limits and causing less danger to nearby personnel and terrain during launch.
The KM-SAM uses tiny lateral compressed gas thrusters to orient itself towards a target during liftoff. This saves time and kinetic energy, as the launcher does not need to swivel around and the missile can begin accelerating towards its target immediately at the launch phase. You can see the startling movement of a KM-SAM’s gas thrusters at launch at 1:43 and again at 5:01 in the video below.
Soaring at speeds between Mach 4 and 5, the missiles receive midcourse adjustments from the battery radar, and upon closing within short range of a target, switch to a heat-seeking active homing mode for the kill.
The takeoff thrusters can also assist in making maneuvers during this terminal stage. The agile munitions could prove very difficult to elude. They can pull up to 50 Gs, are resistant to radar jamming and possess a low heat-signature, making them difficult to detect.
Also new to South Korea are American-made Patriot PAC-3 MSE missiles. Earlier variants of the Patriot performed less than perfectly in the missile defense role against Iraqi Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War, a job its proximity-fused warheads were not optimized for.