Does THAAD really pose a threat to China?

A few years ago the relationship between China and South Korea settled down and became prospective, primarily in economic terms. However, the instalment of the US THAAD missile defense system in South Korea in 2016 started to deteriorate this developing relationship and implied severe Chinese sanctions. According to Chinese and Russian critics, the system that has already become active will break the balance of the East-Asian region. What is the structure of this system and does it really threaten China and Russia?

A security dilemma

In the South Asian region the balance between the countries is most fragile. China, as the greatest power, aims to achieve a regional hegemon role; therefore, Japan and South Korea believe that the US should act as the keeper of security and balance since the two allies in the region are unable to maintain their security against China.

In July 2016 Washington and Seoul announced that the US missile defence system called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) would be installed in South Korea,[1] and this relatively unknown arms system evoked intensive resistance in South Korea, North Korea, China and Russia. THAAD is a missile defence system aiming to annihilate the arriving hostile missiles; however, this system can also be suitable to undermine the US-Russian and the US-Chinese strategic balance and raise the armament competition to a dangerous level in East-Asia.

The leadership of Washington and Seoul decided to install the system owing to the North Korean threat and the increasing number of nuclear experiments and ballistic missile launches. However, one cannot study its influence only with consideration of these three factors since this action generates reactions in the entire region. The security dilemma of South Korea and the related steps, including the involvement of the US and the US technology, in the present case the THAAD, exert an influence on the security and interests of the other countries, too. Focusing mainly on the US army, North Korea’s threat affects the safety and security of both Japan and South Korea, since there is a large number of US troops and military bases in the territory of the two countries. On the other hand, the US weapon system focuses on South Korea but it also influences China and Russia by decreasing their feeling of security, which evokes reactions and armament.[2] Therefore, the security issue of the US and North Korea affects both the allies and the surrounding states and needs to be solved in the region.

The THAAD system

THAAD is a US-developed mobile missile defense system that is applied by the US military force. Its task is to annihilate short-, medium- and large-range ballistic missiles during the terminal phase of the ballistic missile with direct hit (hit to kill).[3] For this purpose, an advanced surveillance and controlling system has been developed for THAAD, which is an AN/TPY-2 (Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance) type, X band surveillance radar having a detection range of 2,000 kilometres.[4]

The air defense missile of the system has no fighting units based upon explosive principles; therefore, the missile as a projectile uses its own kinetic energy to annihilate the target missile with high-accuracy terminal control.[5] This type of intervention can ensure the lowest risk of exploding the military part of the target missile equipped with explosives or nuclear charge. However, as for the chemical and biological combat parts, this threat is still present or the risk increases because the pollutants spread more in higher atmospheric layers and at larger distances and can get down onto the ground surface from there, too.[6] Originally, THAAD was developed against the Soviet Scud[7] and other tactical ballistic missile systems of similar category.[8]

This system is able to catch missiles inside and outside the atmosphere; to protect the inhabited areas and valuable infrastructure; is capable of interoperability with other systems against ballistic missiles (Patriot, PAC-3, Aegis, C2BMC) in order to maximise the missile defense capacities; has high mobility and is suitable for instalment all over the world.[9] A battery consists of the fire control equipment and three launching ramps with eight missiles each. Each missile is six metres long and weighs 836 kilograms.[10] The launch vehicle of the system is the 8×8 wheel-driven M1120 HEMTT LHS with eight launching tubes. This type of vehicle belongs to HEMTT (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck),[11] the US Army’s heavy vehicle fleet, and is also suitable for the transportation of consignments and the traction of heavy trailers.[12] The system components also include a radar (AN/TYP-2) and TFCC (THAAD Fire Control and Communications support equipment) as well as the transport vehicles of the spare launching tubes.[13]

The success rates of the system tests have been 100 per cent since 2005. The missile interception consists of four phases. 1. The radar perceives the incoming threat; 2. the target is identified and located by the fire control and communications support equipment; 3. the launching of the interceptor at the target from the launch vehicle; 4. the interceptor annihilates the incoming threat by using the kinetic energy.[14] In April 2013 the US army installed the first deployable battery to the territory of Guam[15] in order to cover and support the regional stability.[16]

AN/TPY-2 radar

Concerning this topic, it is important to examine the radar of the THAAD system since its effective range gives rise to most criticism. AN/TPY-2 is a high-power radar system that aims to detect and monitor ballistic missiles as well as to determine the actual threat level (e.g. tactical warhead– separation of space debris, etc.) The radar is capable to do this at a large distance and high altitude, including the space.[17] The AN/TPY-2 radar consists of 4 main mobile parts: the Antenna Unit, the Electronic Equipment Part, the Prime Power Unit and the Cooling Equipment Unit.[18] The radar has several application facilities.

One of them is the Forward Based Mode (FBM), which is installed individually and can operate as part of a system against any ballistic missiles. In this application, the radar aims at the early detection of ballistic missiles. For this purpose, the device is installed relatively close to the possible sources of dangers.[19]In this case special telecommunications, battle and fire control elements are added and provided by the THAAD systems normally. After the shooting of hostile missiles, this application is able to process early target data, forward them towards the controlling point and share them with other systems (Aegis, Patriot-PAC 3). “One of the main conditions for integrability into the given system is the availability of C2BMC (Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications) software of appropriate version number.”[20]

Another possibility of application is the Terminal Based Mode (TBM). Being a permanent element in the fire control unit of the THAAD weapon system, it is mainly responsible for the continuous monitoring of the target and the identification of real threat. The missiles of the system keep receiving the continuously updated track data of the target before and after the launch, until the moment of annihilation on the above-mentioned kinetic principle, which needs an incredibly accurate radar.[21]

According to certain sources, the detecting range totals 600-900 kilometres in the tracking mode and can be estimated 1,800-2,000 kilometres in the early warning mode. However, the US missile defence experts believe that the system installed in South Korea would be able to detect a ballistic missile launched from China at a distance of up to 3,000 kilometres.[22] The mobility of the radar is rather high, can be transported by air and made operable within four hours upon delivery at the site of application.[23]

American arguments and Chinese (Russian) counter-arguments

The main question of the instalment of the US missile defence system in South Korea is the operational radius of radar of the THAAD system. China argues that the radar is able to penetrate deeply into the Chinese (and Russian) territory and map it. However, according to US promises, the THAAD radar system is installed in the above-mentioned perception mode and will not endanger the security interests of China and Russia. At the same time, the Pentagon confirmed the critical proposition that the radar can be reset within eight hours from one operating mode to another one, which means that it can be set to a longer-range mode during this period at any time, and they also added that although the two operating modes use the same type of hardware, they have different kinds of controlling software, operating principles and communication packages.[24] This means that although the US has settled the radars in TBM mode, they still have the chance of converting them into another mode and in case of a potential conflict with China they are able to detect the Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles.

According to the official statement of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), the THAAD system was necessary owing to the North Korean threat, which jeopardises the regional stability and the US allies. PACOM also added that the anti-missile system, developed to intercept the hostile ballistic missiles, has only defence capacities.[25] However, some military analysts suppose that the ballistic missiles launched from North Korea would not explain the instalment of such a huge system like THAAD since for a potential South Korean attack short-range ballistic missiles would be used which a small missile defence system could also defend (Patriot PAC-3, PAC.3 MSE) and would even be more cost-efficient.[26] This highlights that the Chinese and Russian interests are not only disturbed by the radar installed with the system (as it would be compatible with the smaller rocker defense system) but the US would also be in an advantageous position of being able to deploy the THAAD against long-range ballistic missiles. For instance, a potential North Korean or Chinese attack against Japan or another Pacific country would be identified and prevented easily. All this verifies the Chinese and Russian charges according to which the balance of the region breaks in favour of the US and their allies, which will launch a severe armament competition in the countries standing on the other side in order to restore the balance.

According to certain opinions, first it may seem that China exaggerates the situation; however, this strong resistance can be understood through two arguments. First, the Chinese Communist Party aimed to legitimise its power and prove, primarily within the country, that it would be able to reduce the US influence and increase the Chinese one in the region and in the allied countries. This idea seems to fail owing to the instalment of the THAAD system: they did not manage to push out the US or put an economic pressure on the US allies, in the present case on South Korea. Another reason for China’s opposition against the THAAD is that their military doctrines, developments and power structure are missile-based.[27] On the occasion of the reform of the People’s Liberation Army in 2015, the Second Artillery Legion was renamed Missile Power, which was transformed into an independent service.[28]

The Chinese views and measures

According to the official statement of the Chinese government, China has a clear view in this case, opposing the instalment of the THAAD system by the US and South Korea in South Korea, and the Chinese government will take the definite and necessary steps to protect the security interests of China.[29]

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, deciding for THAAD was a “wrong decision” by South Korea and leads into the wrong path since it undermines the Chinese strategic security. Then he added that the neighbouring countries should not have this attitude towards each other and this can weaken the security of South Korea.[30]

The communiqué of the Ministry of Defense also supposes that China opposed the instalment of the THAAD in South Korea from beginning to end, and the reasons are entirely obvious, too. Then it added that the instalment of this system is unnecessary for two reasons. First, it will not make South Korea safer, and second, the Chinese army cannot be taken seriously,[31] so this points to the fact that we should calculate with serious sanctions and armament. The website of the People’s Liberation Army suggests that this dispute will have a long-lasting effect on the regional games. According to them, the root of the problem is that the US will not give up their cold war mentality, gathers allies around themselves against Russia and tries to maintain their regional hegemony.[32]

Recently Russia has endeavoured to consolidate and support the standpoints of Beijing on several occasions. On 3 July 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Moscow and had discussions with Vladimir Putin, thanks to which the two countries took the same view concerning the instalment of the system and have been pursuing tight communication about this affair since then. Furthermore, they have demanded the affected countries to retract from the agreement, otherwise China and Russia will take the necessary steps to protect their interests.[33]

When the instalment of the THAAD system began in Seongju province in South Korea in early March,[34] the Korean Lotte firm group provided a golf course to the South Korean government (despite the warning of Beijing) for the system settlement. After the decision Lotte supermarkets are closed one after another in China. 79 of the 99 supermarkets have already been closed, which corresponds to 80 per cent of the Lotte stores located in China. Sixty-three supermarkets were closed by the Chinese government for the breach of fire protection rules, and the others were closed as a result of nationalist resistance.[35] Should this trend continue, the South Korean firm group estimates to have a loss of 66 million dollars in China, resulting in the withdrawal of Lotte from the country, which is not surprising at all as the firm became the target of Chinese nationalists, hackers and the state media after the decision.

Therefore, it can be seen that China has turned to the most painful tool for South Korea[36] and introduced commercial sanctions against both Lotte firm group as well as South Korean tourism, products and culture. China has banned the travel agencies to sell South Korean packages, protesting against the THAAD in this way, too. According to the Korean Tourism Organisation (KTO), there may be 4.7 million less tourists in 2017 as compared to the previous year, which shows 27 per cent decrease. 46.8 per cent of tourists visiting South Korea arrived from China in 2016.[37] Korean culture, which is most popular in China, also suffers negative discrimination among both the Chinese nationalists and by the state. On the video share portals popular in China no new episodes of Korean series are uploaded and the Korean pop singers are not welcome to the country any longer.[38]


The instalment of the THAAD missile defense system was a most risky step taken by South Korea. Although the country has proven its commitment as a US ally and in its opinion it has enhanced the security of the country, it also gave rise to China and Russia’s resistance. At the same time, this system is definitely beneficial for the US, has proven its commitment towards its allies and secured itself against a potential North Korean, Chinese or even Russian missile attack against the US. AT the same time, China and Russia are obviously affected adversely as the instalment of the missile system damages their defense and security capacity, which they try to restore through sanctions and armament. In this was the balance of power seems to break in the East Asian region and shift towards the US. To prevent this, China and Russia endeavour to build good relations with each other and take the steps considered necessary by them with joint force. The Chinese sanctions caused a difficult situation for South Korea in economic terms and the new President Moon Jae-in, inaugurated in May, as now it is his turn to solve this problem. With reference to environmental reasons, he has suspended the instalment of new launching stations for the time being presumably to gain time as long as he finds a solution to the problem.

Author: Alexandra Zoltai


[1]Végfázisú nagy magassági területvédelmi rendszer.

[2] SUH Jae-Jung: Missile Defense and the Security Dilemma: THAAD, Japan’s „Proactive Peace,” and the Arms Race in Northeast Asia. In: The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 15, Issue 9, Number 5, April 27, 2017.

[3] Lockheed Martin Products THAAD

[4] BOROS István: THAAD – a ballisztikus rakéták rettegett ellenfele. In: 12. Arrabona Légvédelmi Rakétaezred, 2014. február 13.

[5] KAZINIS, Harry J.: THAAD 101: The Ultimate Guide to the Missile Defense System China and North Korea Hate. In: The National Interest, 2017. március 6.

[6] KAZINIS, Harry J.: THAAD 101: The Ultimate Guide to the Missile Defense System China and North Korea Hate. In: The National Interest, 2017. március 6.

[7] Tactical ballistic missile system, which the Soviet Union developed during the Cold War.

[8] MIZOKAMI, Kyle: How Russia Gave Birth to THAAD. In: The National Interest, 27 March 2017

[9] Lokheed Martin Products THAAD

[10] BOROS István: THAAD – a ballisztikus rakéták rettegett ellenfele. In: 12. Arrabona Légvédelmi Rakétaezred, 13 February 2014.

[11] A heavy, expanded mobility tactical vehicle.

[12] „Oshkosh M1120 LHS.” In: Military Today.

[13] Missile Defense Agency Fact Sheet

[14] Lokheed Martin Products THAAD

[15] One of the most improtant US military bases int he Pacific Region.

[16] „THAAD Endo/exo-atmospheric Intercept Capability” In: Lockheed Martin, 21 May 2015

[17] VADÁSZ István: Az AN/TPY-2 korai előrejelző radar. In: Háború Művészete, 9 July 2014

[18] „Army Nay/Tranportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2).” In: Raytheon Company.

[19] „Two Modes, One Steady Defense” In: Raytheon C-mpany, 29 June 2017

[20] „Army Nay/Tranportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2).” In: Raytheon Company.

[21] VADÁSZ István: Az AN/TPY-2 korai előrejelző radar. In: Háború Művészete,9 July  2014

[22] PARK Hyun: Pentagon document confirms THAAD’s eight-hour conversion ability. In: The Hankyoreh, 3 June 2015

[23] „THAAD Radar Ranges.” In Mostly Missile Defense, 17 July 2016

[24] PARK Hyun: Pentagon document confirms THAAD’s eight-hour conversion ability. In: The Hankyoreh, 3 June 2015

[25] FABLEY, Mike: Why America’s THAAD Deployment to South Korea Is Making China Go Crazy. In The National Interest, 15 March 2017

[26] FABLEY, Mike: US THAAD Deployment to Korea Rattles China. In: Scout Warrior, 15 March 2017

[27] FABLEY, Mike: US THAAD Deployment to Korea Rattles China. In: Scout Warrior, 15 March 2017

[28] KLEMENSITS Péter: Katonai reformok Kínában: A Népi Felszabadító Hadsereg és a 21. század kihívásai. In: PAGEO, 7 October 2016

[29] „Foreign Ministry Spokeperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press Conference on March 7, 2017.” In: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People1s Republic of China, 7 March 2017

[30] „王毅外长谈“萨德”:敦促韩方悬崖勒马 中止部。” In: 外交部网站, 2017年3月8日。

[31] „国防部:反对部署“萨德” 中国军队绝不是说说而已。” In: 国防部网站,2017年3月30日。

[32] „“萨德”入韩破坏东北亚战略平衡。” In: 解放军报,2017年7月14日 星期五。

[33] „China, Russia share opposition to U.S. THAAD in South Korea: Xi.” In: Reuters, 3 July 2017

[34] ZHANG Dongmiao: Feature: S.Korean city anxious about THAAD deployment plan . In: Xinhua, 17 March 2017

[35] LINDER, Alex: 80% of Lotte supermarkets in China have been forced to shut down in wake of THAAD backlash. In: Shanghaiist, 21 March 2017

[36] In 2015 China was Korea’s No. 1 trade partner.

[37] „South Korea tourism hit by China ban.” In: BBC, 11 July 2017

[38] JOURDAN, Adam – Lee, Joyce: Missile row drives Korean culture underground in China. In: Reuters, 17 March 2017


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: