The commander of U.S. forces in Korea favors establishing a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile shield in South Korea as a response to taunts from North Korea that in recent weeks included a missile test and the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti has backed deployment of a THAAD battery to South Korea previously during his tenure as commander on the ground there. Recent provocations from the North have spurred bilateral consultations regarding the viability of basing the system there to upgrade the U.S.-South Korean combined missile defense posture.
Talks between the two nations have stalled because of Chinese concerns the deployment could undermine its own interests in the region. The Lockheed Martin [LMT] THAAD system detects incoming ballistic missiles and launches interceptor rockets to destroy them in flight up to altitudes outside the earth’s atmosphere. The interceptors do not carry warheads, but smash up enemy missiles by running into them at high speed.
Scaparotti on Tuesday told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that he considers the January nuclear bomb detonation and the Feb. 7 launching of a satellite into orbit tests of a North Korean ICBM capability.
The Army already maintains a THAAD battery on Guam and is in the process of making that installation permanent as part of a regional expansion of missile defense capabilities that also includes two ballistic missile defense radars in Japan, according to U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, who also testified before HASC on Tuesday.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un wants to be regarded as nuclear capable and is flaunting its pursuit of delivery vehicle technologies to establish credibility, he told SASC members.
“[Kim] said that despite the international sanctions, that he will continue to develop his nuclear and his missile capabilities, and despite our deterrence, as you have seen, he has continued to do so,” Scaparrotti said.
South Korea needs to “develop a robust, tiered ballistic missile defense,” Scapraotti said and cited progress in “enhancing future interoperable-warfighting capabilities” through purchases of the PAC-3 missile upgrades for the Patriot Weapon System.
“We must maintain an adequate quantity of critical munitions to ensure alliance supremacy in the early days of any conflict on the peninsula,” Scaparrotti said. “This requirement is further amplified by the approaching loss of cluster munitions, due to the shelf-life expiration and the impending ban.”
He also applauded South Korean investments in multi-role tanker refueling aircraft, Aegis command-and-control and weapons system and advanced aircraft including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Northrop Grumman [NOC] RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
The need for advanced weaponry that allows interoperable military response between U.S. and South Korean forces is underscored by the “semi-war status” reached in August. North Korean mines wounded two soldiers on the south side of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two nations. As has happened in the past, the two sides traded artillery fire before and until North Korea owned up to planting the mines.
Such an incident has the potential to rapidly escalate to a hot war that could include the launching of nuclear weapons, Scaparotti said. In August, both sides were on high alert and could have easily touched off a firestorm, he said.
His biggest worry is that “there could be a miscalculation. And then with a response, it would be … hard to control that situation.”