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Missile Defense Misconceptions: THAAD in South Korea Case Study

One of the hottest topics in global affairs in 2017, the U.S. THAAD deployment to South Korea is back in the news following a recent equipment swap at the site. Consider the following article and video showing the movement of equipment into the THAAD site in Seongju, Korea and the associated backlash:

As seen in the above video and others, thousands of Korean National Police were mobilized to quell anti-THAAD protesters near the THAAD site. But why such an outrage? What was this rare equipment movement about? True experts with operational experience can provide the full answer. Despite being a purely defensive system, China is vehemently opposed to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. The above article and many others like it attempt to explain China's opposition to THAAD and what occurred during the overnight movement operation. However, due a lack of experience with these systems and misunderstandings about the geopolitical factors at play, journalists and policymakers often state and spread inaccurate or misguided information. Proper consulting is important and necessary to fully understand all aspects of the technical and geopolitical implications of the THAAD system in South Korea.

As an example of misinformation spread by the media, this article contains several quotes from Korean officials denying that any upgrades occurred at the THAAD site, and assumes these statements to be fact:

However, the fact is, that anyone who has operational experience with these systems would clearly recognize what equipment was brought into and came out of the THAAD site. Despite the interceptor missiles being covered, it is difficult to conceal the fact interceptors were on the back of those vehicles. This is what the majority of outlets are focusing on. However, the reality of what else occurred is simple to the trained eye. In videos taken by the protesters, an Electronics Equipment Unit (EEU) is seen being transported into the site. The EEU is "the brains" of the radar and also the shelter inside which the radar operators sit. There are only two reasons an EEU would be brought to the site. The first, which is highly unlikely, is that the existing EEU experienced a critical failure that could not be repaired and needed to be replaced by another one. The second, more likely reason is that the new EEU is an upgraded version with increased capabilities, intended to replace the older one. Without this knowledge, journalists rely on what they are told, disseminating inaccuracies and misinforming the public. If the U.S. and Korean governments were more forthcoming, maybe they would not have as many local protesters questioning their official denials. After all, the missile defense system is in place for their protection from North Korea, so why are they opposed to it? The short answer is China.

When the THAAD deployment to Seongju was first announced, the locals were understandably upset. The city of Seongju was not notified before the official announcement and the people felt that their voices were unimportant to the national government. The below article from 2016 details the extent of their opposition, but also mentions Russia and China:

Local farmers were concerned about the effect the powerful radar's radiation would have on their health and melon crops. Other groups protested various issues from noise pollution to the site's vicinity to historic spiritual sites. After the system was deployed, however, the local protests slowly diminished, as health issues and the melon crops were seemingly unaffected. China's opposition, however, remained. The protesters that continue to plant themselves outside the gate to the THAAD site in Seongju, Korea are organized and financed by China. They are present every day and limit any ground movement into and out of the site, requiring regular resupplies and personnel movements to be conducted by helicopter. The protesters are used as propaganda to promulgate the notion that they're is greater opposition to THAAD then there really is. The Korean ministry of defense often must deny the truth, like in the case of this upgrade, in an attempt to avoid additional repercussions from China, who placed hefty economic sanctions on South Korea after THAAD's deployment in the country. .

China claims that THAAD interferes with its "national interests." Supposedly, its primary objection to THAAD in South Korea is due to the powerful AN/TPY-2 radar that is part of the THAAD system, which can "spy on" China and detect Chinese missile launches. Unsurprisingly, this is neither completely accurate nor the entire story behind China's objection. Instead, China could likely care less about the system. In fact, China may actually prefer it there because it can use it as a bargaining tool to extract concessions from South Korea.

The Seongju radar's powerful capability is not a threat to China, and certainly not Russia, but Beijing and Moscow likely know this. The AN/TPY-2 radar has two modes in which it is deployed; either with a THAAD battery in Terminal Mode, or by itself in Forward-based Mode. The hardware for these radars is the same, but the software is completely different. The Terminal Mode radar has a much shorter range and is generally oriented upward, optimized to track incoming ballistic missiles in the terminal phase, or final downward descent. In this mode, the radar also needs to track the outgoing interceptor as it exits the launcher. In Terminal Mode, the radar's range would just barely reach beyond China's border. The Forward-based Mode has a significantly further range and is generally oriented outward to detect missiles shortly after launch in their ascent to provide early warning to other sensors and missile defense weapon systems. In this mode, the radar could detect Chinese missile launches, if oriented in the proper direction with search fences designed for threats from there. A common misconception is that the AN/TPY-2 radar can be quickly switched from Terminal Mode to Forward-based Mode, and vice versa. It would actually take months to make this change. Entirely new radar search plans, or multiple search fences, would need to be built into the software and tested, not to mention the possible need to reorient the radar face. If the radar is moved even only one degree, the entire search plan needs to be recreated, a long and arduous process, which is why the radars are only used for one purpose.

Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that the United States deployed an AN/TPY-2 FBM radar with THAAD equipment. This would render the THAAD launchers useless if the radar is not in Terminal Mode and would be an extremely costly diversion. Instead, China, Russia, and the world should understand that the radar is in Terminal Mode and in its current position and orientation (facing north toward North Korea), it is simply supporting the defense of southern South Korea, not spying into Chinese or Russian territory. The likely EEU upgrade does not change much. Although its detection range may be slightly greater, the system is still in Terminal Mode and optimized for greater precision at shorter ranges to accurately track incoming missiles and outgoing interceptors.


Acamar believes in educating the public about missile defense issues that affect geopolitics. We provide real information based on unmatched real world experience.


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