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THAAD's defense effect in S.Korea may be exaggerated

by Yoo Seungki

South Koreadecided Wednesday to deploy the U.S. missile defense system, namely the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to its southeastern region, but it might have limited defense effect against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s missile attacks, experts said.

Seoul's defense ministry announced a plan to deploy one THAAD battery to the Seongsan-ri region of the Seongju county in North Gyeongsang province by the end of next year. Yoo Jeh-seung, deputy defense minister for policy, told a nationally televised briefing that U.S. interceptors can protect a half to two-thirds of South Korean territory.

According to the ministry, the THAAD system can shield regions as far as southern Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul, from DPRK ballistic missiles as they have a maximum range of 200 km. The protectable range allegedly includes Pyeongtaek and Gunsan.

Pyeongtaek, some 70 km south of Seoul, is home to U.S. Forces Korea (USFK)'s new headquarters, while the U.S. Air Force has a large presence in Gunsan, about 270 km southwest of the capital.

"Claims to be able to shield two-thirds of the territory can be seen in a pamphlet of Lockheed Martin. The higher the intercepting altitude, the smaller the protectable range is," said Cheong Wooksik, director of Peace Network.

The coverage, which South Korea claimed THAAD missiles can protect, was simplistically estimated from a two-dimensional perspective without consideration of the altitude, according to the civic group activist. Therefore, its operational capability is exaggerated.

Cheong said at a forum hosted by the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) that there is a clear difference between a maximum intercepting range and an effective coverage of the THAAD missiles. The THAAD's effective range is not known to the public as it would be much lower than the maximum coverage.

The THAAD, developed by the U.S.-based defense company Lockheed Martin, is designed to shoot down missiles at an altitude of 40-150 km using a hit-to-kill approach. It is composed of six mobile launchers, 48 interceptors, radar and fire control system valued at about 1.5 trillion won (1.3 billion U.S. dollars).

Despite Seoul's alleged propaganda that THAAD tests succeeded more than 10 times, such belief is too naive for a government to give a full confidence as the system never proved its intercepting capability transparently and objectively.

"The U.S. THAAD tests are known to have been conducted to shoot down missiles dropped from a large transport aircraft at a pre-arranged time and place. (South Korea's military authorities) may not be fully informed of the test procedures," said Cheong.

As THAAD interceptors use a hit-to-kill approach, they are required to precisely hit a warhead head-on. The missiles without explosive materials inside would easily bounce off the round-tipped warheads of DPRK missiles. The concept is like hitting a bullet with another bullet.

U.S. Patriot missiles, which South Korea's military already held, can intercept ballistic missiles by exploding warhead-carried explosive materials near the incoming missiles, raising possibility for shooting down targets.

Seoul's defense ministry said Seoul and the metropolitan area will be shielded with U.S. Patriot interceptors, which will be reinforced near the regions. It indicated the THAAD system will be deployed to protect U.S. military bases in South Korea, differing from the government's claim that it is aimed at protecting South Korean people.

"The main reason for the THAAD's deployment on the Korean peninsula is to protect U.S. forces and equipments," said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute.

The DPRK allegedly owns about 400 Scud missiles, which fly at an altitude of 20-60 km and reach Seoul and the metropolitan area in five minutes. The country also has some 300 Rodong ballistic missiles with a range of 1,300 km and around 50 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles ranging 3,000-3,500 km.

The THAAD system might not be able to intercept nuclear-tipped Rodong or Musudan missiles as the DPRK missiles would travel at a lower altitude that can avoid the THAAD's interception range, said analysts.

[ Editor: meng ]