Interest grows for additional South Korean defense mechanisms

Interest grows for additional South Korean defense mechanisms

Felix Kim

Deploying an effective defense against the threat of missile attack from North Korea remains a top priority for South Korea. While support for the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) continues to be strong at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, interest in other missile defense systems as possible complements to THAAD has been on the rise.

One candidate system is based on the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) an interceptor missile, developed by U.S. defense manufacturer Raytheon. Supporters of the SM-3 expound on its effectiveness, high-altitude reach and maritime launch capability. (Pictured: The U.S. Navy launches a Standard Middle-3 Block 1A interceptor from the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean.)

Raytheon describes the SM-3 as “an interceptor missile able to knock an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) out of space,” adding, “the SM-3 is an exo-atmospheric ‘kill vehicle,’ meaning it can destroy short- and intermediate-range incoming targets; its ‘kill vehicle’ has no explosives but rather uses kinetic energy to collide with and obliterate its target. The resulting impact is the equivalent to a 10-ton [9-metric ton] truck traveling at 600 miles per hour [965 kilometers per hour].”

Kim Jae Yeop, visiting professor at the Graduate School of National Defense Strategy at Hannam University in South Korea, explained in an interview with FORUM that a ballistic missile fired from North Korea would pass through three phases en route to its target in the South — the initial boost phase, the high-altitude midcourse phase and the terminal phase when its velocity is at its highest.

“During the first phase is when the missile [is] easiest to intercept,” said Kim. “SM-3 has been designed to intercept the missile in the first phase by launching from a maritime vessel in the nearby sea close to the place from where the missile is fired. It also can intercept even during the second phase with its available range and altitude of over 500-1,000 kilometers. The PAC-2 and PAC-3 missiles and THAAD, well-known for intercepting ballistic missiles in general, are working for the third phase.”

PAC is the nickname of the U.S.-designed Patriot Advanced Capability missile.

Until recently, the threat from the North was perceived to be from such shorter-range missiles as the Soviet-designed Scud or its North Korean-designed cousin, the Rodong, Kim explained, against which PACs and THAAD were deemed effective. However, with the North’s recent demonstration of a long-range ICBM, the SM-3 is getting some strong consideration.

Although there is some support for using the SM-3 to intercept mid- and long-range missiles aimed at the South from the North, Kim said, there is more consensus for using it against ICBMs.

“SM-3 creates an extra opportunity to intercept missiles and raises the possibility of success,” said Kim. “However, it doesn’t mean it can displace THAAD. Its field command from Korea is actually outside of the Korean Peninsula, so that to defend against the North using SM-3 is more likely to be on the part of the Americans or Japanese.”

Song Young-moo, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent nominee to become the country’s next defense minister, has expressed support for the SM-3 during his tenure as chief of Navy operations.

If the South were to adopt the SM-3, it could be deployed on Korean Sejong the Great-class destroyers, said Kim, and incorporated into the Aegis combat system, used in the region by the South Korean Navy, as well as by U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.