The U.S. has conducted a successful test of its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, intercepting a medium-range target ballistic missile for its 15th success in 15 tries, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said.
Experts said Sunday’s test was almost certainly aimed at reassuring nervous Asian allies amid the growing threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The THAAD test — which came just two days after the North successfully conducted its second launch of a powerful new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — destroyed the air-launched target.
The latest intercept by the system was heralded as bolstering U.S. defenses amid Pyongyang’s rapid progress in its quest to master the technology needed to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the tip of a missile that can hit the mainland United States.
“In addition to successfully intercepting the target, the data collected will allow (the) MDA to enhance the THAAD weapon system, our modeling and simulation capabilities, and our ability to stay ahead of the evolving threat,” MDA Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves said in a statement.
While it was unclear what Greaves meant by “the evolving threat,” experts said he was likely alluding to North Korea’s ramped-up pace of missile and nuclear testing.
“The MDA director was referring to North Korea — probably the most evolving threat the U.S. faces right now,” said Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Analysts said after the North’s ICBM launch late Friday that the missile flew higher and longer than any prior test and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — within range of the North’s ever-improving weapons systems.
They estimated that Friday’s ICBM, known as the Hwasong-14, had a maximum range of about 10,400 km (6,500 miles).
The THAAD system’s unblemished record of intercepts is likely to provide some measure of comfort to Asian allies nervous over surging tensions with the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has also threatened U.S. military bases and civilian sites in Japan and South Korea, where a THAAD battery has been deployed.
That decision has angered China and Russia, and its full deployment had been put on ice by new South Korean President Moon Jae-in. China and Russia both fear the system’s advanced radar could be used to peer into their own territory.
Moon, however, ordered discussions be held with the U.S. on deploying additional THAAD units following Friday’s ICBM launch, his office said Saturday.
Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense, said the THAAD test “was primarily for South Korea and Japan.”
“I think THAAD provides some degree of reassurance to some in South Korea and Japan — especially because of the successful test track record that’s accumulating — but it’s reassurance on the margins.”
The MDA said Sunday’s THAAD test was conducted to gather threat data from one of the system’s interceptors in flight. It saw a U.S. Air Force C-17 launch the medium-range missile over the Pacific Ocean, which was then detected, tracked and intercepted by the THAAD system in Kodiak, Alaska.
The statement said launcher, fire-control and radar operations were conducted “using the same procedures they would use in an actual combat scenario.” Soldiers operating the equipment were not informed of the actual target launch time, it added.
Earlier last month, the U.S. conducted a successful test of the THAAD system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile from the same site in Alaska.
IRBMs, which have a range of 3,000 to 5,500 km (1,800 to 3,100 miles), are faster and more difficult to hit than shorter-range missiles, according to experts.
The ground-based system is designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and Lockheed Martin Corp. — the system’s prime contractor — says it has the ability to intercept incoming missiles both inside and outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
Japan last year was said to be interested in having the U.S. deploy a THAAD system to the country but has appeared to instead shift its focus to the land-based Aegis Ashore system to add another layer to its missile defenses.
THAAD carries no warhead, but relies on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy incoming missiles, with some experts likening it to hitting a bullet with a bullet.
Jackson said that despite the system’s usefulness in the region, “it feels like too little, too late to be of strategic value.”
“At this point, THAAD is operationally important, but it’s not going to be sufficient to calm Northeast Asian anxieties, nor will it have any kind of deterrent effect on North Korean behavior,” he added.
“So THAAD is a step in the right direction, but it’s merely one piece on the chessboard.”
Some critics of the system say North Korea could test the system by launching a so-called saturation strike of multiple missiles simultaneously — potentially overwhelming it.
In March, the North test-fired what experts said were four extended-range Scud missiles, with the country calling the drill a rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized that test as “a new level of threat” from Pyongyang.
Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the continued testing of THAAD would allow the U.S. to enhance the system’s effectiveness.
“They are gathering data with every flight,” Davis said. “If they can do more complex tests — particularly against multiple targets — that would be very useful.”