On Tuesday, July 11, the United States Missile Defense Agency successfully intercepted a test target with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, proving the effectiveness of the missile defense system now deployed in South Korea.
The THAAD works by detecting an incoming missile with advanced, long-range radar (one of the reasons the Chinese oppose THAAD deployment in South Korea). THAAD’s fire control and communications center identifies and targets the missile. An interceptor is launched from a truck-mounted launching platform to strike the missile and destroy it using kinetic energy. In essence, THAAD hits one bullet with another.
While Tuesday’s test can be seen as a response to North Korea’s recent ICBM launch, THAAD systems are designed for short to intermediate range ballistic missiles. THAAD is not made for ICBM interception, and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has already demonstrated the ability to take down an ICBM, but a successful THAAD test sends a distinct message to the Korean Peninsula.
The mainstream media has been keen to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program and rightly so; the danger of their conventional weapons is often ignored. North Korea’s ballistic missiles, even without nuclear warheads, pose a distinct threat to South Korea and the entire region. THAAD and other missile defense systems are vital in answering this clear and present threat to regional stability.
Technology like THAAD sends the North Korean regime the message that their missile capability is not as dangerous as they would like to believe. It negates (in part) the threat posed by North Korea missiles. However, such a message has second and third order consequences. The United States’ greatest strength (our overwhelming military superiority to North Korea) is also our greatest weakness in dealing with the North Korean problem.
Make no mistake, Kim Jong-Un is not an irrational madman, no matter the media portrays him. He is effectively the warden of the single largest prison on the planet, and everything the Kim regime does is to further maintain and secure power. Every decision, within and without the country, is calculated to bring about the desired effect of maintaining power and the survival of the regime.
North Korea knows that war with the United States would lead to their destruction. The U.S. is simply too strong. The pre-programmed response, therefore, is an all-out assault. If the United States and North Korea were to resume a shooting war, the North Korea response would be total war. North Korea would fire on all cylinders, utilizing 100% of their capabilities, regardless of how limited or measured the United States’ actions may be.
It is for this reason that North Korea sought nuclear weapons and maintained the level of belligerence and saber rattling it has. If North Korea can make the prospect of war unacceptable, they can ensure the survival of their regime, at least militarily.
THAAD and other missile defense systems file away at the Korean tiger’s teeth but it is not a 100% solution, and North Korea knows it. We cannot possibly shoot down every missile, and even if only one gets through the results would be catastrophic.
North Korea’s ground force must also be taken into account. North Korean artillery and rocket batteries have had South Korean and U.S. defensive positions targeted for decades. It is widely believed that North Korea has dug tunnels under the DMZ, allowing for destabilizing attacks while the main force moves across the DMZ.
THAAD and other systems, while seen as provocations by some, buy the Trump Administration time to come up with a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Korean problem. Unfortunately, that time will soon run out. The death toll of a war with North Korea would be unlike anything our country has seen in recent memory and we must either have the national resolve to face it or a plan in place to avoid it.