MIT emeritus professor Theodore Postol says THAAD deployment will result in the worst of all the possible worlds
After South Korea announced on July 8 the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, the Hankyoreh’s Washington correspondent conducted an email exchange with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) emeritus professor Theodore Postol. Postol shared his thoughts on the decision, THAAD’s efficacy, and the potential ramifications in the Northeast Asian political and security climate.
Theodore Postol (Postol): I am truly sorry for this decision, as it hurts the security of South Korea, the other states in East Asia, and the United States as well.
The THAAD defense can be expected to provide South Korea with essentially no useful defense capacity, but it will infuriate the Chinese who are worried about THAAD being used by the US against them to aim the US National Missile Defense at China.
The North Koreans can counter THAAD by simply cutting ballistic missile into pieces after the missile has completed its powered flight – propelling its warhead and the pieces of the empty rocket towards a target in South Korea. THAAD’s infrared homing kill vehicle would not be able to distinguish between the warhead and pieces of debris when fed interceptors attempt to engage the warhead and decoy cloud at high altitudes. This capability has already been demonstrated by the North.
The pieces of the rocket would act as credible decoys down to an altitude of 65 to 70 km before atmospheric drag causes them to slow up relative to the warhead. If THAAD interceptors were launched at the warhead at that time, the interceptors would not be able to reach their minimum intercept altitude before the warhead had passed on to the ground.
The Chinese are concerned about the THAAD radar because it was designed from its beginning to provide cuing information to the US National Missile Defense. The placement of a THAAD radar in South Korea has the unambiguous technical appearance of placing the radar in a location where it can provide track information on Chinese ICBMs before they rise over the curved earth-horizon and can be seen by the main radars of the US National Missile Defense in Alaska.
This does not mean that the US missile defense has any chance of working against the Chinese missiles, because the National Missile Defense is, like THAAD, also unable to distinguish between warheads and decoys with both its radars and interceptors. Nevertheless, the placement of the THAAD radar in South Korea unambiguously creates the appearance that South Korea is helping the US aim its National Missile Defense at China. This is in direct contradiction to the stated US policy in missile defense, which emphasizes that the US missile defense is intended for North Korea and is not aimed at China.
The implications for this needlessly created tension-raising confrontation are rather far ranging.
It adds to the view of many nations in the world that the United States cannot be trusted at its word. It puts South Korea at odds with China over a defense system that has no merit for South Korea’s defense, and it will certainly raise tensions between China and Japan – which already has two THAAD radars stationed on its territory.
Thus, the decision to deploy THAAD to South Korea will result in the worst of all the possible worlds that could be achieved by policy choices.
South Korea will get no military benefit from the THAAD defense system, and China will consider the radar‘s deployment to South Korea as a hostile act by South Korea against China. It therefore has a significant negative impact on South Korean/Chinese relations, with essentially no real benefit to South Korea.
A material change of the military balance
Hankyoreh (Hani): Can you please tell me your overall opinion about the deployment of THAAD in South Korea?
The deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea will result in a significant escalation of political tensions between South Korea and the United States with China. The military contribution of THAAD to the defense of South Korea will be insignificant and the ability of the THAAD radar to materially increase the capabilities of the US National Missile Defense will also be insignificant.
However, the appearance of a US attempt to aim its National Missile Defense at China with the help of South Korea will have a powerful influence on China’s view of both South Korea and the United States.
It will also have a powerful effect on the view of many nations that deal with the US that the US is untrustworthy in terms of its commitments.
The Chinese will certainly see US claims that its National Missile Defense is not aimed at China as totally disingenuous. The North Koreans will see this deployment as yet another example of how the US says one thing but then does the opposite. The North Koreans have already noted that the US welcomed Moamar Qaddafi when he gave up his nuclear weapons program, but then turned around and supported the rebellion against him that led to his murder only a few years later.
So this US deployment has many significant political implications well beyond the immediate.
In addition, the Chinese political leadership may well decide that a military response is appropriate for what they perceive as a serious provocation by the United States and South Korea.
The most likely response by China could be to increase the number of warheads on existing long-range Chinese ICBMs that are capable of carrying more warheads than they now carry. This response would be aimed directly as a political statement to US leadership.
An additional Chinese military response would be to increase the number of nuclear-armed short range ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea. They might also declare that they will attack the THAAD radar with nuclear weapons should hostilities breakout between China and the United States.
Although none of these steps would materially change the military balance between China, South Korea, and the United States, the political cost of the THAAD deployment will be real and of considerable concern.
Increased political tensions and provocations by both sides will increase the risk of inadvertent confrontations that could lead to war – all of this for a weapon system that has no material capabilities.
Hani: How will China respond to make THAAD militarily? In other words, what are China‘s options to counter THAAD?
Postol: It is difficult to know exactly how China will militarily respond to the THAAD deployment as the threat of the THAAD radar is from a purely military point of view essentially insignificant.
The most likely response will be political, although the message will be sent in terms of military steps.
Those two steps are described above – an increase in the number of warheads loaded onto Chinese ICBMs and an increase in the number of short range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea.
As noted above, none of these will materially change the military balance (including the THAAD deployment in South Korea). However, the escalation in political tensions will be real and will increase the chances of inadvertent events that could lead to war or localized military confrontations.
An arms race in Northeast Asia
Hani: If China counters THAAD aggressively, do you think it will result in an arms race in Northeast Asia?
Postol: There is already an arms race in progress in Northeast Asia. China is expanding its conventional military capabilities and the US is trying to deny China an increased military presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The forces behind this US and Chinese competition have deep historical roots on both sides and it is not being managed well by either China or the US.
Within the context of this already serious military competition, the THAAD deployment in South Korea will definitely be looked upon by China as a significant military provocation by the US.
Hani: What do you think that North Korea will do to make THAAD useless militarily? In other words, what are North Korea’s options to counter THAAD?
Postol: North Korea has already demonstrated that it has the technology to defeat the THAAD system. All it needs to do is to use Nodong missiles to deliver nuclear warheads on lofted trajectories against targets in South Korea. The rockets that are used to launch the nuclear warheads could be readily cut up into pieces that would create decoys that are indistinguishable from the warhead to THAAD infrared homing interceptors. This tactic would work at both high and low altitudes.
Hani: Russia has also opposed to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea even though it has not been referred so much in South Korea. Why do you think Russia has opposed THAAD?
Postol: Russia opposes THAAD because it sees the United States as trying to gain nuclear hegemony over Russia with the help of US missile defenses. There are many statements by Vladimir Putin to this effect. The Russians see US missile defense activities as dangerous, in part because it fosters the belief that it is possible to defend against nuclear ballistic missile attack, and also because it creates a vast base of radar systems and interceptors that might be modernized to create a different future system that the Russian fear could be used against them.
Hani: Do you think China-Russia could cooperate to defend their security undermined by THAAD?
Postol: The Russians have very advanced ballistic missile countermeasure technologies that date from the Cold War. It is unclear whether they would be willing to pass these technologies on to China, but it appears very likely they could provide China with analytical support for building countermeasures that might possibly be shared with Russia.
Hani: What joint countermeasures of China and Russia can we imagine? Also, if so, why are China and Russia‘s joint actions dangerous for South Korea and U.S.’s security and Northeast Asia‘s stability in the long term?
Postol: The very substantial danger to South Korea is its new political role in allying itself with the United States in activities that have the appearance of being directly pointed at China and Russia. This political role could well have unpredictable consequences as tensions continue to rise between United States and Russia and China.
Hani: Do you think the deployment of THAAD in South Korea will be helpful or harmful to US’s long term interests in terms of international relations and military?
Postol: The deployment of THAAD in South Korea will definitely add to the belief among many national leaders that US policy positions are not dependable for purposes of their national planning. It will add to the growing tensions between the United States and Russia and China, and may even eventually contribute to circumstances that might degenerate into direct military conflicts.
These serious and dangerous political consequences will be a result of an ill-conceived and purely militarily useless action by the United States.
Hani: Why do you think US government hurried to deploy THAAD in South Korea? What is the main factor among the Pentagon’s demand, or military commanders demand (especially in South Korea) or manufacture company’s lobby?
Postol: It is very difficult to know why the US is in such a rush to deploy THAAD to South Korea. There are very likely numerous and distinct motivations within the community of US players.
One reason is that by moving fast, the United States takes advantage of the political “window” that is opened by China’s recent mistakes in dealing with Korea’s political leadership.
Another reason is that certain US leaders want to show China that they are unhappy with China’s military posture and that they will continue to do things to threaten China if China does not come to heel.
Still another reason is that certain organizations, presumably with the support of certain US leaders, want to increase the capacity of the US national missile defense against China.
Yet others may simply want to show China that the United States can do what it wants and China cannot stop it.
By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent