The Truth About THAAD

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

National security news is dominated by the actions of North Korea. In that context, a great amount of attention has been paid to the THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. THAAD is a necessary and critical step in America’s march towards missile defense and securing not only our interests but our allies’ well-being. The issue of THAAD cannot be seen to only exist in a vacuum nor as simply a shield against North Korean militarism. It must be viewed as an integral piece to the American projection of power in East Asia, the stability of the region, as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese imperial adventurism and as a material sign of support to our South Korean ally.

According to the Department of Defense, THAAD was deployed to “ensure the security of South Korea” and to “protect alliance forces from North Korea.” It is a measure to “improve the missile defense posture of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.” Commander of the Eighth U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal says that THAAD is being installed to “improve our missile defense posture, which is a critical aspect of our defense strategy.” The long and short of it is THAAD will aid South Korea in shooting down missiles launched by the North, saving civilian lives and military personnel.

However, it is important to understand that THAAD is an anti-theater ballistic missile system not designed to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is aimed at missiles under a range of 5,500 km and beyond 150 km. It boasts an area protection of 200 km and is capable of multiple launches. Short-range missiles like the SCUDS, a favorite of Saddam Hussein, can be dealt with by the Patriot system. American innovation may again change the situation since THAAD developer Lockheed Martin is working on Extended Range THAAD (THAAD-ER) which could target misses at an altitude of 150 km and travel at hypersonic speeds of Mach 8. This is especially important given the recent announcement that all six launchers will be deployed, rather than two, which was the original position of President Moon in June.

Of note, South Korea has signaled a shift in their defense posture, stressing a more pre-emptive stance rather than a retaliatory one. Naturally, South Korean domestic politics plays a key role, and the election of President Moon may lead to a reassessment of the tough stance taken by President Park. It is important to consider the change in South Korea’s policy in recent years as well. There is concern that the current deployment puts Seoul out of THAAD projection, but the answer here lies in the greater number of missile batteries and a multi-layered defense that ultimately embraces strategic missile defense.

THAAD fits into overall American national security policy by enhancing a layered missile defense which already serves to protect alliance troops in South Korea from North Korean ballistic missiles. It serves as a further check on North Korean power, and it has been stressed repeatedly that it will not be aimed at any third-party countries. This is a U.S. effort by the U.S. military, not an effort by the South Koreans to buy and operate this system themselves. This reinforces the U.S. commitment to defend its own troops, despite attitudes by South Korean politicians. It also provides a useful bargaining chip in the face of North Korea’s provocations, including their continuous missile tests.

The first reaction of North Korea to THAAD has been to accuse the U.S. and South Korea of planning a nuclear attack. They threatened to retaliate with enough force to turn South Korea “into a sea of fire and a pile of ashes.” China has been resolute in their opposition to the deployment of this system. Their main concern is that they believe it would give “Washington better early warning and tracking of Chinese missiles.” And with good reason, as THAAD can cover roughly 2,000 km, which would reach deep into mainland China. According to China’s foreign ministry, “The missile system is unhelpful in realizing the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is no good for the stabilization of the peninsula, runs counter to the effort of various parties’ negotiations, and will severely damage the safety of China and nearby countries and the regional strategic balance.” The recent deployment of THAAD to locations in South Korea led Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to use the term “regrettable.”

China retaliated against South Korea for their agreement to accept the system by banning imports of 19 Korean cosmetics products, roughly 11 tons of cosmetics. This caused a 1.68 percent dip in AmorePacific stock, the largest cosmetic company in South Korea. They have also put pressure on the affiliates of Lotte, the South Korea company which sold its land to the government for THAAD to sit on. According to reports, China “banned South Korean stars from appearing on its TV shows and rejected a request by airline companies to operate chartered planes bound for South Korea.”

It is not surprising that Russia also stressed the negative to THAAD’s deployment by claiming that it would trigger an arms race in East Asia. Nor is it surprising that Japan expressed the opposite attitude of the Russians to a system that may assist in thwarting North Korean aggression.

The deployment of THAAD was never a magic bullet, but a necessary component of missile defense, that in concert with more tactical, strategic and ultimately space-based systems can deter, dissuade and destroy an aggressor’s ability to threaten American interests, personnel and allies. It enhances American diplomacy by clearly placing American defense assets in harm’s way in support of our alliances. It is unfortunate that the Obama administration considered using THAAD as a bargaining chip with China as it is a system that needs to be deployed, enlarged and enhanced.