The Buzz

North Korea's Worst Nightmare: South Korea Wants Its Very Own THAAD 'Missile Shield'

In December 2016, South Korea began upgrading its eight batteries of PAC-2 anti-aircraft missiles to also fire the PAC-3 MSE variant, which trades out the explosive warhead for a guidance-radar which is precise enough for hit-to-kill interception, transforming it into a shorter-range missile-defense weapon.

The PAC-3 MSE missile will form the inner layer of the KAMD. The Mach-4 missiles can protect a 15-to-20-mile radius against theater ballistic missiles, but is not thought to be capable of reliably intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The missile batteries count on two ELM-2080 Green Pine phased array radars purchased from Israel in 2009 to serve as their long-range eyes. Seoul announced it was purchasing an additional two in April 2017.

These can detect missiles launches within 500 miles as soon as they lift off. Furthermore, the land-based radars are networked with the powerful SPY-1D radars on South Korean Sejong the Great-class Aegis destroyers at sea.

These vessels may also contribute their air-defense firepower to the KAMD using SM-2 missiles, as well as possibly more capable SM-3 or SM-6 missiles in the future. There are also reports that the KAMD has been given access to U.S. satellites and radar networks.

When combined, the early warning provided by these long-range radars would allow the shorter-range radars of the KAMD missile batteries to be cued into position to acquire firing solutions as soon as the incoming missiles enter range.

A Korean THAAD?

The KAMD still needs a top-layer to defend against fast, high-flying missiles. Nearly $1 billion dollars has been devoted to the L-SAM or Cheolmae-4, which is scheduled for completion in 2022 with deployment of four batteries to follow a year or two afterwards.

The new project has been nicknamed the K-THAAD due to its planned long range of 25 to 93 miles and ability to hit targets high as 200,000 feet. Still, this would be less than half the maximum altitude of THAAD, and it appears the L-SAM will be a mid-course interceptor designed to swat higher-flying ballistic missiles in the cruise phase before they begin their terminal descent. This means that the L-SAM and THAAD would complement rather than overlap in capabilities.

Reports suggest the L-SAM will be based again on S-400 technology, and some analysts suggest its missile will use a South Korean development of its long-range 48N6 missile. The Russian missile can attain speeds between Mach 8 and 14, sufficient to intercept intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the L-SAM will use an S-band AESA radar just like the 91N6E Big Bird on the S-400 does.

However, the 48N6 missile is designed to shred aircraft at long range using a proximity warhead rather than disintegrate fast-moving missiles through kinetic impact, so substantial modifications would be necessary to optimize the design for a missile-defense role.

Planned features including a “high-divert” maneuvering system for the L-SAM interceptor bring to mind the U.S. Navy’s SM-3 Block IIA missile, and some commentators argue early schematics more closely resemble the Israeli Arrow-3.

Missile shields are the new normal

Both Japan and the United States are under threat of North Korean missile attack, and have prepared their own defenses. In Japan’s case, these involve a combination of PAC-3 Patriot missiles for point-defense and long-range SM-3 missiles mounted on Japanese destroyers and ground-based installations.

To protect the United States from potential intercontinental ballistic missiles from Pyongyang, there are several dozen interceptor missiles in Alaska and California serving in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which has had a spotty record in tests.

Ballistic Missile Defense systems are increasingly common across the globe. Saudi Arabia recently purchased THAAD, India has its own BMD interceptor program, Russia is developing the S-500 for the missile-defense role and Israel has its Arrow-3 ABM.

It’s easy to forget that at the turn of the century, few countries had serious ballistic missile-defense capabilities due to the 1972 ABM Treaty, which the U.S. withdrew from in 2002. One fear was that a defense system might make national leaders overconfident, giving them a false impression that a missile shield would reliably defend against attack.

That problem seems unlikely in the case of the South Korean government, with its capital just 35 miles south of the North Korean border. Not only does Pyongyang possess so many missiles that shooting down all of them is unlikely, but the North Korean has many conventional and rocket artillery systems that could wreak considerable devastation on the border area, including the capital city Seoul.

Thus a South Korean missile shield might substantially mitigate the severity of a North Korean barrage, but still not prevent such a conflict from resulting in horrifying loss of life, especially with chemical and potentially nuclear warheads at Pyongyang’s disposal.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.