In response to North Korea's escalating threats of a missile attack, the Pentagon has announced that the U.S. will deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to Guam. Developed and tested in the 1990s, THAAD is designed to intercept ballistic missiles mid-air. The deployment of THAAD to Guam is intended to protect the island, home to approximately 160,000 U.S. citizens, and its valuable military assets.
On the same day as the Pentagon announcement, Reuters reported that North Korea appears to have moved a mid-range Musudan missile to its east coast by train. The Musudan has a range of 1,875 to 2,485 miles according to various sources, which puts Guam either slightly out of reach or just within reach of the missile. Japan and South Korea, however, lie well within its scope.
THAAD, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, has an estimated range of 125 miles. Fairly small at just over 6 meters in length, it is designed to crash into oncoming missiles in their terminal phase. The THAAD missile is not mounted with a warhead. According to the Pentagon's announcement Wednesday, THAAD will be deployed "in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat."
It's unclear whether North Korea intends to fire the missile, which has undergone some testing. Musudan missiles unveiled last year at a Pyongyang military parade are suspected to have been mock-ups, and many believe that by moving the missile to the east coast, North Korea is putting on a show of force. Confirming the relocation of the missile, South Korea's defense minister Kim Kwan-jin suggested that this could have been done for "for testing or drills." Speaking after North Korea announced its "state of war" with South Korea, Kim called the threats "rhetorical" and said his military found no sign of preparation for an actual conflict.
Whatever North Korea's reason for moving the missile, all military threats are taken seriously. "They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington. "We take those threats seriously. We have to take those threats seriously."
It appears that deployment of THAAD to Guam is a secondary line of defense. The U.S. Navy also has two Arleigh Burke class destroyers in the Pacific, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Decatur, equipped with interceptor missiles and a sophisticated radar system known as the Aegis, which, like THAAD, is produced by Lockheed Martin. According to the Pentagon, the destroyers will be able to respond quickly to a North Korean missile launch. Japan and South Korea's navies both also the use Aegis combat system.
As a third line of defense, the U.S. has short-range Patriot guided missiles, used in Iraq and the Gulf war, which can detect and destroy oncoming missiles that are up to 50 miles away.
The deployment of THAAD is the latest of U.S. responses to what Hagel has called North Korea's "bellicose, dangerous rhetoric" and talks of war. Purely a defensive strategy, THAAD, according to the Defense Department, "will strengthen defense capabilities for American citizens in the U.S. territory of Guam and U.S. forces stationed there."