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Korea • What is THAAD?


The announcement that the U.S. and South Korea had agreed to the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on Korean territory marks an important advance in the US Administration’s militarized Asia pivot. The THAAD battery threatens to destabilize the military balance of power and draw South Korea into an anti-China alliance with the United States and Japan.  The missiles in a THAAD battery are designed to counter incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude ranging from 40 to 150 kilometers. Given North Korea’s proximity, few, if any, missiles fired by the North would attain such a height, given that the point of a high altitude ballistic missile is to maximize distance. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Assessment of the Ballistic Missile Defense System reports that while all simple non-separating target missiles were successfully intercepted during testing, THAAD had yet to be tested against “more complex” short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles requiring the use of advanced radar algorithms. So claims made about THAAD’s effectiveness are unproven.

So why deploy a THAAD battery in South Korea when it serves no discernible defensive purpose? From the standpoint of U.S. officials, while the missiles are operationally irrelevant, they serve an important practical role in overcoming resistance and persuading a large segment of the Korean population that the battery is necessary for defense.

What truly matters in the THAAD battery destined for Korea is not its weapons, but its AN/TPY-2 X-band radar. Until recently, U.S. officials obfuscated the fact that the radar has two modes of operation: a terminal mode, designed to detect an incoming missile as it approaches its target and trigger the launch of a counter-missile; and a forward-based mode, which can track a missile in its boost phase and pass data back to the U.S.-based anti-missile system. It takes only eight hours to switch the AN/TPY-2 from one mode to the other, and in forward-mode radar at Seongju would be capable of covering much of eastern China, as well as missiles fired from further afield as they fly within its detection range.

Defense Industry Daily reports that the AN/TPY-2 radar “is always deployed with THAAD, but it can also be used independently as part of any ABM (anti-ballistic missile) infrastructure,” and that flexibility is “carving out an expanding role…that reaches beyond THAAD.”

The wider the range of radar coverage, the more precise the information that is passed to anti-missile batteries stationed in the United States. A THAAD battery is already situated in Guam, and two stand-alone AN/TPY-2 radars are positioned in Japan, where they are integrated into the U.S. missile defense system.

Seongju and then Gimcheon residents were not consulted about the potential deployment in their farming villages. They are concerned about the radiation impact, as the radars will transmit pulses of high-frequency electromagnetic fields, and the AN/TPY-2 radar generates radio frequencies in the range of 8.55 to 10 GHz. According to the World Health Organization, radio frequency waves below 10 GHz “penetrate exposed tissues and produce heating due to energy absorption,” and an absorption rate of at least four watts per kilogram “is needed to produce known adverse health effects.”    On top of this, the price of a THAAD battery amounts to a staggering $1.3 billion, and annual sustainment costs are $22 million.  Right now, it will cost the American people, and at some point, it is probable that the United States will attempt to offload annual costs onto the Korean people.


“Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific Task Force”, stopthaad.orgis a coalition of organizations that are building awareness and helping to grow a movement to stop the deployment of this new missile defense system.

The coalition consists of the following organizations:

• Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea

• Korea Policy Institute

• Philadelphia Committee for Peace and Justice in Asia

• Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space

• Veterans For Peace, National Office