Thaad upgrade still on despite halt to war games

US to bolster missile defence systems to counter N. Korea strike against South, allies

WASHINGTON • Upcoming US-South Korea "war games" may be on hold, but the Pentagon is moving forward with plans to upgrade missile defence systems designed to counter a strike by North Korea against Seoul or other regional allies, according to the director of the US Missile Defence Agency.

"We absolutely hope that diplomacy is successful," US Air Force Lieutenant-General Sam Greaves said, "but at the same time we must remain vigilant to provide the capability that's needed."

The Defence Department is sticking with plans to bolster the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system as well as lower-altitude Patriot interceptor batteries deployed on the Korean peninsula, he said in an interview in Washington on Tuesday.

It is the mixture of conciliation and strength that Defence Secretary James Mattis is trying to project on a visit that brought him to Beijing on Tuesday, with stops to follow in South Korea and Japan.

Mr Mattis confirmed last week that the United States suspended some impending joint exercises with South Korea on orders from President Donald Trump.

But the suspension does not apply to the longer-term missile defence upgrades, Lt-Gen Greaves said on Tuesday.

Mr Trump appeared to surprise aides and allies when he announced on June 12 that "we will be stopping the war games" following his talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

ON ITS TOES

We absolutely hope that diplomacy is successful. But at the same time we must remain vigilant to provide the capability that's needed.

AIR FORCE LIEUTENANT-GENERAL SAM GREAVES

But the Pentagon plans for all contingencies.

Its latest national defence strategy describes North Korea as a rogue regime that "seeks to guarantee regime survival and increased leverage by seeking a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and unconventional weapons and a growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan, and the United States".

The missile defence upgrades were aided by Senate passage last week of its version of the US$716 billion (S$976 billion) defence policy Bill, which authorised an extra US$284 million for the improvements, more than the US$81 million requested by the Pentagon to continue the integration effort.

Thaad, whose deployment was approved by Mr Trump last year, is equipped with advanced radar and is able to target short-and medium-range missiles at high altitudes in their "terminal" phase, as they descend.

China says Thaad threatens its security, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in had denounced the deployment before he was elected, though he later embraced it as North Korea ramped up its ballistic missile and nuclear bomb tests.

The upgrades for Thaad and Patriot will continue "unless we get different direction from the President", Lt-Gen Greaves said. The issue may arise today when Mr Mattis visits South Korea.

Meanwhile, the regime in North Korea is carrying out rapid improvements to the country's nuclear research facility, a monitor said yesterday, despite Mr Kim's declaration of commitment to denuclearisation at his Singapore summit with Mr Trump.

Recent satellite imagery showed that not only were operations continuing at the North's main Yongbyon nuclear site, but infrastructure works were also being carried out at the site, said the respected 38 North website.

However, continued operations at the site "should not be seen as having any relationship with North Korea's pledge to denuclearise", it added. Nuclear officials could be "expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang", it said.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2018, with the headline 'Thaad upgrade still on despite halt to war games'. Print Edition | Subscribe