During the past few years, “THAAD”— the Terminal High Altitude Defense —has been in the news. With North Korea making multiple ballistic missile tests in recent history, “THAAD” has entered the news vocabulary to represent both a hot-button topic and a sort of international “safety net.” But what is it, exactly?

THAAD is a relative recent addition to the United States’ anti-ballistic missile/interceptor systems. The concept was proposed in 1987, with a formal request for proposals submitted to industries in 1991. In September 1992, the US Army selected Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) as prime contractor for THAAD development.

Lockhead Martin diagram showing THAAD capabilities.

Lockhead Martin diagram showing THAAD capabilities.

The ground-based missile defense system entered production after the Persian Gulf War. It is designed to destroy any short-, medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile while in the “terminal” phase (the ‘T’ in the acronym) when the missile is plunging back to earth toward its target. The THAAD interceptor doesn’t carry a warhead. Rather, the system destroys an incoming missile through a “hit-to-kill” approach, relying on kinetic energy. A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding a ballistic missile’s conventional or nuclear-tipped warhead.

The system is also designed to be highly mobile. It consists of four main components: The truck-mounted launcher; eight interceptors on the launcher; a transportable radar system; and a fire control system that links the various components with external command centers.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)undefinedType: Anti-ballistic missile system Place of origin: United StatesDesigned: 1987 Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Produced: 2008–present Weight: 900 kg

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)undefinedType: Anti-ballistic missile system
Place of origin: United States
Designed: 1987
Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin
Produced: 2008–present Weight: 900 kg

Operating the THAAD system is similar to many other missile interceptor and surface-to-air missile systems. According to Lockheed Martin, there are four stages to its operation. 

First, THAAD is activated when an X-Band active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (AN/TPY-2) detects and identifies a target projectile. 

Second, THAAD’s fire control and support equipment identifies and verifies the threat before initiating the launcher. 

Third, the launcher releases the infrared seeker head-equipped THAAD missile. 

If all goes right, THAAD destroys the incoming missile by colliding with it in the fourth and final stage. 

Diagram showing the four steps of a missile intercept

Four steps of a missile intercept

Because the destruction occurs at a high altitude, the effects of any weapons of mass destruction can be mitigated. This ballet takes place at hypersonic speeds over Mach 8 at “high altitude” (the “H” in the acronym) — up to 93 miles above the earth’s surface in either the atmosphere (endo-atmospheric) or out of the atmosphere (exo-atmospheric).

SO WHY IS THAAD IN THE NEWS?

THAAD systems have been deployed in several places around the world, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Guam, and Hawaii. In 2016, the Defense Department announced it would deploy a system to South Korea in what the Pentagon described as a “defensive measure” against North Korea.

The THAAD launch unit vehicle is a modified Oshkosh Truck Corporation Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck with Load Handling System (HEMTT-LHS). The vehicle carries ten missile launch containers.

The THAAD launch unit vehicle is a modified Oshkosh Truck Corporation Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck with Load Handling System (HEMTT-LHS). The vehicle carries ten missile launch containers. While on the launcher, lead acid batteries provide the primary power. The batteries are recharged with a low-noise generator.

In response, North Korea has performed military exercises to practice targeting U.S. military bases in Japan. Several SCUD-type missile launchings suggested that North Korea was training to see how quickly it could deploy and fire extended-range missiles. The United States responded by announcing the plan to deploy THAAD to South Korea the week following the launches.

The AN/TPY-2 radar defends against the growing ballistic missile threat. It performs in two modes: Forward-based and terminal. In forward-based mode, it detects ballistic missiles at long ranges. In terminal mode, it is the dedicated radar for the THAAD missile system. According to manufacturer’s literature, “Raytheon has delivered ten AN/TPY-2s to date, and is in the process of building two more for the U.S. customer, and two for international partners.”

The AN/TPY-2 radar defends against the growing ballistic missile threat. It performs in two modes: Forward-based and terminal. In forward-based mode, it detects ballistic missiles at long ranges. In terminal mode, it is the dedicated radar for the THAAD missile system. According to manufacturer’s literature, “Raytheon has delivered ten AN/TPY-2s to date, and is in the process of building two more for the U.S. customer, and two for international partners.” 

In reaction to the U.S. plan, China responded with a threat of “consequences.” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said during a daily news briefing in Beijing following the U.S. announcement, “We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our security interests.”

So why did China (and even Russia) express so much anxiety about a THAAD system recently deployed in South Korea? Any missile that either nation could conceivably launch against the United States would not be threatened by THAAD. The system defends against missiles plunging to earth, that is, in their “terminal phase.” Any launches from either nation would be passing over the THAAD’s range of effectiveness during their climbing, “initial phase.” Rather, what seems to be at the root of China or Russia’s concern are the sophisticated AN/TPY-2 radars that THAAD uses.

The AN/TPY-2 is a missile-defense radar that can detect, classify, and track ballistic missiles. It operates in the X band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which enables it to see targets more clearly, and it has two modes — one to detect ballistic missiles as they rise, and another that can guide interceptors toward a descending warhead. China might feel the radar could be used to track its missile systems, potentially giving the United States a major advantage.

While the THAAD deployment to the Republic of Korea appears to be directed against North Korea, China’s response and continued dramatic North Korean reactions ensure that “THAAD” will remain in the common vocabulary of our defense news for the immediate future.

Two THAAD launchers shortly after being flown into Republic of Korea in March 2017. “The timely deployment of the THAAD system by U.S. Pacific Command and the Secretary of Defense gives my command great confidence in the support we will receive when we ask for reinforcemet or advanced capabilities,» said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, U.S. Forces Korea commander.

Two THAAD launchers shortly after being flown into Republic of Korea in March 2017. “The timely deployment of the THAAD system by U.S. Pacific Command and the Secretary of Defense gives my command great confidence in the support we will receive when we ask for reinforcement or advanced capabilities,» said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, U.S. Forces Korea commander. 

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