US plans to test Thaad missile defences as North Korea tensions mount: US officials

A terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor being launched from a THAAD battery located on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean, during the Flight Test Operational (FTO)-02 Event 2a, on on Nov 1, 2015.
A terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor being launched from a THAAD battery located on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean, during the Flight Test Operational (FTO)-02 Event 2a, on on Nov 1, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States plans to carry out a new test of its Thaad missile defence system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile in the coming days, two US officials told Reuters on Friday (July 7), as tensions with North Korea climb.

Despite being planned months ago, the US missile defence test will gain significance in the wake of North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4 that has heightened concerns about the threat from Pyongyang.

The test will be the first of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) to defend against a simulated attack by an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), one of the officials said. The Thaad interceptors will be fired from Alaska.

The United States has Thaad interceptors in Guam that are meant to help guard against a missile attack from a country such as North Korea.

The officials who disclosed to Reuters the precise nature and timing of the upcoming test spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked by Reuters, the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) confirmed that it aimed to carry out a Thaad flight test "in early July".

Chris Johnson, an MDA spokesman, said the Thaad weapon system at the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska, would "detect, track and engage a target with a Thaad interceptor". "The test is designated as Flight Test THAAD (FTT)-18,"Johnson said. He did not elaborate.

Still, in recent testimony to Congress, Vice-Admiral James Syring, then the director of the Missile Defence Agency, said FTT-18 would aim to demonstrate Thaad's ability to intercept a separating IRBM target.

MDA said Thaad had a 100 per cent successful track record in its 13 flight tests since 2006. After previous tests, the US military has publicly disclosed the results.

The Thaad system deployed in South Korea is a ground-based missile defence system designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Lockheed Martin Corp, the prime contractor for the Thaad system, said it has the ability to intercept incoming missiles both inside and outside the Earth's atmosphere.

This year's US deployment of Thaad in South Korea to guard against North Korea's shorter-range missiles has also drawn fierce criticism from China, which says the system's powerful radar can probe deep into its territory.

Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing, in a joint statement, called on Washington to immediately halt deployment of Thaad in South Korea.

The statement said Washington was using North Korea as a pretext to expand its military infrastructure in Asia and risked upsetting the strategic balance of power in the region.

Thaad's success rate in testing is far higher than the one for America's Ground-based Midcourse Defence system (GMD), the system specifically designed to shoot down an ICBM headed for the U.S. mainland.

That GMD system has only a 55 per cent success rate over the life of the programme. But advocates note that the technology has improved dramatically in recent years.

In a key development, the GMD system successfully shot down an incoming, simulated North Korean ICBM in a test in May.

That led the Pentagon to upgrade its assessment of America's ability to defend against a small number of ICBMs, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.

MDA told Congress in June that it plans to deliver 52 more Thaad interceptors to US Army between October 2017 and September 2018, for a total of 210 delivered since May 2011.