Daily Management Review

A Swarm-Like Attack From North Korea Could ‘Overwhelm’ South Korea's THAAD Missile Shield


A message to nuclear-armed North Korea of the technological capabilities of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system was sent with the successful interception test over the Pacific this week of a ballistic missile target using it.
But since it has yet to be battle-tested, there are concerns how the controversial anti-missile system might work. Since North Korea is known to have hundreds of missiles in its arsenal, some are worried it could be "overwhelmed" by a swarm-like attack from it.
Two U.S.-supplied THAAD anti-missile launchers are at present deployed in South Korea. Guam, where the U.S. military has bases, also has a THAAD battery deployed.
Short and medium-range missiles are designed to be shot down by the system. And its first intermediate missile intercept test was on Tuesday. Roughly 1,865 to 3,400 miles is the range of an intermediate missile.
After launching an interceptor from a THAAD system located in Kodiak, Alaska, it successfully destroyed the ballistic missile, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced in a press release. an Air Force C-17 over the Pacific north of Hawaii had air-launched the missile.
"I'd say it certainly does send a signal that this is a good system for defending against theater-level ballistic missile threats, including North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA's Korea branch and now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.
It might have been "seen as counterproductive…and kind of too provocative to the South Korean government" and that was probably the reason the U.S. didn't test the THAAD system in South Korea, Klingner said.
The THAAD system is not designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles unlike the so-called Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is installed in Alaska and California. Intercepting a mock ICBM fired from California, the GMD had its own test May 30.
"This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats," Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said in a statement.
He added, "THAAD continues to protect our citizens, deployed forces and allies from a real and growing threat."
Since 2005, this was the 14th successful intercept in 14 attempts for the THAAD system, the missile agency said.
However, the danger of swarm-type attacks by multiple incoming ballistic missiles from North Korea or other enemies might not be reflected by the military's testing, critics say. The system could be render useless by such a scenario which could overwhelm or confuse the system.
"While the THAAD system does have a good number of interceptors, I can imagine it getting overwhelmed by sheer numbers," said Laura Grego, a missile defense expert and senior scientist in the Global Security Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The U.S. military's May 30 test of the "less mature" GMD system was "not challenged in the way they would be [in] a real-world scenario” and this system designed to protect the U.S. homeland from ballistic missiles has flaws, said Grego.
"We generally say they are scripted for success. They don't have challenging countermeasures of the type that a really dedicated adversary would include," Grego added.
North Korea is known to have short-range Scud and other missiles targeting Seoul, as for South Korea's vulnerabilities to a swarm-like attack. Pyongyang is believed to have tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles at a naval facility on its west coast and that’s also a possibility - an attack using such ballistic missiles.