U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work says he wants South Korea’s missile defense (MD) system to be ‘extremely interoperable’ with the U.S. system.
“We want the Korean Air Missile and Defense (KAMD) to be independent and strong,” he told a news conference at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on August 21, “What we hope is to have an extremely interoperable system between the United States’ theater missile defense and the KAMD.“
‘Extremely Interoperable’ – What does it mean?
The US government has said in the past that it is considering the deployment of exo-atmospheric Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors in South Korea to protect U.S. forces there. South Korea, however, has said it prefers to develop its own national Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, and so far has not agreed to be be part of a joint system with the United States and Japan.
THAAD deployment in South Korea has become a hot-button issue in recent US-South Korea diplomatic relations.
Although Work’s recent statement seems to imply that the United States will respect South Korea’s independent MD system, ‘interoperability’ really means it will become integrated into the U.S. system, according to Defense Plus 21 Editor Kim Jong-dae.
“The only way the two systems can be ‘extremely interoperable’,” says Kim, “is through the deployment of the THAAD C2 (command and control) system in Korea.” For all intents and purposes, according to Kim, “it would mean the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.”
THAAD in Korea – Would Provoke China and Make South Korea a U.S. Outpost
THAAD, the core of U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system, is designed to detect and intercept short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase at high altitudes of 40 to 150 km. Although missiles are easily transportable by sea, the radar detection range of MD systems is limited. And that is why the United States is keen on expanding its radar installation sites.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min-koo has already signaled support for THAAD deployment in Korea. “It would help to deter North Korea’s nukes and missiles and strengthen the security posture of the Korean peninsula,” he said on a television appearance on July 20.
But given the proximity of North Korea, writes Gregory Elich, “a THAAD battery would make little sense from the South Korean perspective.” He quotes a Korean official who spoke on condition of anonymity – “In an environment like the Korean Peninsula where firing ranges are so short, the most effective missile defense system is low-altitude defense. We’re not participating in any system for high-altitude defense.”
“Nor would a high-altitude ballistic missile be North Korea’s first weapon of choice, when low or medium-altitude missiles would be airborne for a far shorter period, thus making them more difficult to shoot down,” adds Elich, “A THAAD battery in South Korea, however, would make an inviting target for Chinese missiles in any conflict between the United States and China.“
The South Korean Defense Ministry says that THAAD deployment in Korea does not automatically mean South Korea is participating in the U.S. MD system. Furthermore, it says, “If THAAD is deployed in Korea, its operation will be confined to the Korean peninsula and has nothing to do with China.”
But like Elich, Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK) analyst Ko Young-dae is unconvinced. “The AN/TPY-2 X-band radar that’s part of the THAAD battery can track ballistic missiles launched in northeast China – Shanghai, Beijing, or Dalian, for example – towards continental United States, or U.S. bases in Hawaii, Guam, South Korea or Okinawa, and provide early warning to the United States and Japan,” he says. This will incapacitate China’s deterrence capability against the United States and Japan, he argues, and inevitably worsen South Korea-China relations.
Furthermore, says Ko, “If THAAD is deployed in Korea, even if it is operated by U.S. forces and not South Korean forces, South Korea becomes an outpost for information-gathering and operation of the U.S. MD system.”
China and Russia Warn ‘Arms Race in Northeast Asia’
China has voiced strong concern about possible THAAD deployment in Korea. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency warned on May 29, “South Korea will sacrifice its fast-developing relations with China.” And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in June, “Deploying missile defense on the Korean peninsula would not be in the interest of regional stability or strategic balance.”
Russia joined China in denouncing the U.S. plan. In a comment issued on July 24, 2014, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the following-
The fact should not be disregarded that this in fact means that the geography of US global anti-missile defenses is expanding and its elements will now be present in the South Korean land. Such events will inevitably negatively affect the strategic situation in the region, and could provoke the armament race in North-East Asia and create additional complications for the resolution of the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula. Speaking more at large, this will certainly negatively affect global strategic stability, which the United States continues to disrupt unilaterally by creating a global missile defense shield and by armaments control processes.
The U.S. government has denied Russia’s claims that THAAD deployment in Korea would be aimed at Russia. Nonetheless, the THAAD X-band radar’s detection range of 1000 km would include, if deployed in South Korea, far eastern Russia, including Vladivostok.
The issue of THAAD deployment in South Korea will likely reemerge as a hot-button issue when Mark Lippert, missile defense expert and Obama’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea, comes to town. And it could become fuel for Cold War-like hostilities in Northeast Asia.
The Park Geun-hye government, caught between the United States, its traditional benefactor, and China, its largest trading partner, needs to choose wisely and consider that ‘interoperability’ could be just a sugar-coated term for intervention.