Deciphering PRC’s Stance on THAAD in South Korea: A Chinese First Strike Policy in Asia? (Updated with Chinese Response)

Shaping a New Sensor-Shooter Relationship in Japan with Aegis, Patriot and THAAD will significantly expand the capabilities of all (Credit Photo: Raytheon and its PAC-3)

2016-11-27 By Danny Lam

During President Obama’s meeting with President Elect Donald Trump, a “big problem for the country” was discussed.

North Korea and its nuclear ballistic missile program was identified in September as the first problem for the Trump Administration.

President Elect Trump will be briefed by the priesthood of China / North Asia experts on the issue, and will hear their pitch for the continuation of multilateral diplomacy based approaches to solving the problem — the approach that repeatedly failed for decades and got us to where we are.

Except that today, or by 2020, the NORK problem have turned from a nuclear ballistic missile threat to allies like Japan and South Korea, and perhaps US bases like Guam, to a problem that directly threaten every major U.S. population center including those of happy go lucky free riding allies like Canada.

U.S. Co-operation with the Beijing regime, administered by the “China Expert” priesthood, produced a direct threat to the United States by one of the most irresponsible, unpredictable, irresponsible, and dangerous powers in the world.

Yet, the priesthood maintain that their approach is the only way even as PRC’s intransience appeared to have risen to a new level with arguments that THAAD based in South Korea threaten the allegedly small nuclear force controlled by Beijing, and Beijing’s insistence on no deployment as a precondition for increasing sanctions on North Korea.

The Beijing Regime alleged that THAAD 10 extra minutes of warning of missile launches from China.

PRC diplomats claim THAAD threatens the “terminal” and “mid-course” phases of their intermediate range and ICBMs.

This is a notional rendering of the 10 and 2 O'Clock challenge. It is credited to Second Line of Defense and not in any way an official rendering by any agency of the US government. It is meant for illustration purposes only.
This is a notional rendering of the 10 and 2 O’Clock challenge as seen by then Northcom/Norad Commander, Admiral Gortney. It is credited to Second Line of Defense and not in any way an official rendering by any agency of the US government. It is meant for illustration purposes only.

One perspective is to take Beijing’s statements as technical errors by diplomats poorly trained in the technical details of arms control.

From this, it follows that Beijing’s allegations and opposition to THAAD are technically unsound based on any plausible assessment of THAAD capabilities and the flight path of PRC’s nuclear ballistic missiles.

Chinese nuclear forces are now split between land based silos, road and rail mobile launchers, and SSBNs at very different locations.

The actual numbers of launchers deployed have sharply risen.

However, if it is the case that the PRC regime in fact have substantially more nuclear weapons deployed than they claimed, particularly on intermediate and short range missiles aimed at Japan, S. Korea, and US bases, it will lead to a very different conclusion.

An increase in warning time of 8 to 10 minutes may not make much of a difference for an ICBM attack on the US.   Nor will it make much difference for a retaliatory strike against US allies aimed at population centers consistent with the “No First Use” policy declared by the PRC Regime.

However, reducing the warning time will have substantial impact on the ability of Japan, S. Korea, and US bases like Okinawa, Guam, etc. to activate defense systems like Patriots that defend relatively small footprints like military bases.

Extant anti-ballistic missiles like Patriots and sea based Standard Missiles are only “moved out” on alert, with only a small percentage of the systems held at high levels of readiness.

Shaping a New Sensor-Shooter Relationship in Japan with Aegis, Patriot and THAAD will significantly expand the capabilities of all (Credit Photo: Raytheon and its PAC-3)
Shaping a New Sensor-Shooter Relationship in Japan with Aegis, Patriot and THAAD will significantly expand the capabilities of all to defend against first strike threats in the Pacific. (Credit Photo: Raytheon and its PAC-3)

PRC use of “terminal” and “mid-course” terms, rather than being technical errors, it is exactly the right term to describe the course of ballistic missile attacks on Japan and major US bases like Okinawa.    PRC knows that early warning and cueing data from THAAD can be flowed to Patriots and Aegis in an integrated ABM system.

If the PRC’s intent is to be able to launch a nuclear first strike at installations protected by Patriots and Aegis systems, then their objection to THAAD is technically sound.    

Rather than being threatened by a handful of THAAD interceptors, Beijing’s plans for a nuclear missile attack on Japan would be frustrated by far more numerous Patriot and Aegis interceptors.  

If they are given sufficient warning to be deployed.

It is well known that PRC have substantial inventories of medium and short range ballistic missiles.

A nuclear ballistic missile first strike offers the opportunity to destroy the conventional arms capability of US and allies in the region in a lighting first strike.

If the PRC actually have thousands of warheads as opposed to 250 alleged by a number of arms control advocates, a nuclear first strike aimed at allied military installations makes sense.

The PRC’s nuclear arsenal is not subject to any arms control agreements, or any credible verification.

Perhaps Beijing is not as toothless or benign as they want the world to believe.

Editor’s Note: Interestingly, the Japanese government has recently indicated its interest in acquiring and deploying THAAD as well.

The Defense Ministry has launched a full-fledged study into adopting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system developed by the United States.

The ministry plans to set up a team for discussions on THAAD that will be headed by Deputy Defense Minister Kenji Wakamiya, sources said. The panel’s aim is to draw up specific measures by next summer to strengthen Japan’s missile defense system.

The ministry had considered the possibility of deploying THAAD under the next medium-term defense buildup program from fiscal 2019 to 2023.

But after more than 20 ballistic missile tests by the North this year, as well as the steady progress it has made in its quest to miniaturize nuclear warheads, the ministry is now aiming to introduce the ground-based system earlier, the sources said.

Japan’s current two-tier missile defense system calls for first trying to shoot down a missile in space with SM-3 (Standard-Missile 3) interceptors mounted on Aegis destroyers and, in the event that fails, destroying it at an altitude of less than 20 km using the PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability-3) surface-to-air missile system.

THAAD would be able to intercept a missile re-entering the atmosphere at a higher altitude than the PAC-3 can.

The United States has decided to deploy the THAAD system at a military base in South Korea. If Japan introduces the system, that would enable effective THAAD operations and information-sharing to be conducted among the three allies, the sources said.

The Defense Ministry also plans to introduce a ground-based missile defense system known as Aegis Ashore.

Both systems face hurdles as each will cost hundreds of billions of yen and require public approval to adopt, the sources said.

“It will not be easy to secure related budgets,” a senior ministry official said.

Adoption of either system is also likely draw a backlash from China, the sources said.

Beijing has angrily denounced Washington’s plan to deploy THAAD in South Korea as a serious threat to the region’s geopolitical balance.

And  the Chinese have commented on the new Japanese response and on the issues raised in this article.

According to an article in The Global Times published on 11/28/16, “China Must Work to Render THAAD Void.”

According to reports, Japan’s defense ministry is planning to set up a team headed by Deputy Defense Minister Kenji Wakamiya to discuss adopting the US-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. Given North Korea’s frequent ballistic missile tests this year, Japan plans to hammer out a blueprint for the deployment before summer next year. 

Deploying THAAD will enable Japan to not only guard against missiles from North Korea, but enhance its strategic deterrence against China. South Korea and Japan, both set to deploy the THAAD system, can spy on the northeastern and southeastern regions of China respectively. After they just inked an intelligence-sharing agreement last week, they can form a fully-fledged missile defense system in Northeast Asia with the THAAD adoption, which will weaken China’s missile deterrence and add to the US’ leverage against China. 

China has failed to stop South Korea from adopting the THAAD system, and is no more likely to force Japan out of it. With a closer alliance with the US than South Korea and a tougher stance over China, Tokyo brings up the deployment at this moment in an attempt to affect US President-elect Donald Trump‘s policy on the Asia-Pacific. This leaves little for China to do to turn it around.

The US is intensifying its missile defense system in the West Pacific. China cannot expect Trump to retreat from it. Instead China should focus more on what it can do, not what it can talk the US out of doing. 

In the current circumstances, China needs to improve its missile defense system and to significantly enhance the penetration capability of its missiles to an extent that outpaces THAAD deployment. The latter is crucial. Seoul and Tokyo’s THAAD deployment plans have given China a chance to upgrade the penetration capability of its missiles and expand its nuclear arsenal to approximately the size of that of the US and Russia. 

As the second-largest economy, China has been deemed by the US as its top strategic rival and been dragged into a major power competition. China remaining a second-rate nuclear power will prompt US radicals to get tough on it. The US’ overwhelming nuclear margin on China is not conducive to bilateral relations. 

China is fully able to develop its missile penetration capability with a smaller investment so as to render the THAAD system obsolete before its deployment is finished. With mature technology in ballistic missile nuclear submarines, it should launch more submarines to circumvent the THAAD system. 

China cherishes peace, but the US, Japan and South Korea are keen to take actions that threaten China’s strategic security. In response, China needs to be flexible diplomatically and meanwhile build reliable military might. Since we can hardly stop the THAAD deployment, we can render the deployment void so that next time these countries will understand that they need to consider before taking any action.  

For a chance to comment on this article, please go to the following:

Trump Raised the Question about the Future of Extended Deterrence: The Chinese Challenge

Editor’s Note: With the election of President Trump, there is the possibility to relink at key security questions with a fresh eye.  

Clearly, one of these involves China’s support for North Korea and their nuclear policy and its impact on the region and the United States.

Trump raised the issue of extended deterrence during the campaign, and it is a real challenge, not easily dismissed by pursuing past policies.

There is clearly a need for a fresh approach.

Rather than assuming than assuming that China is going to do anything constructive about North Korea, a closer look at China’s own nuclear policy is clearly required.

We have done so on an earlier Second Line of Defense Forum on the Second Nuclear Age, and the recent work of Paul Bracken, who generated the process of a strategic rethink would be a good launch point for reworking U.S. policy in the region with regard to nuclear weapons.

And for a graphic characterization of the evolving “Pentapolar Nuclear Order” in the 2020s as seen by Bracken (graphic credited to Bracken):

Pentapolar Nuc Race


For our interview with Admiral Gortney where he discussed the nuclear threat to North America in very realistic and graphic terms, see the following:

For an earlier article by Lam on the Chinese nuclear dynamic, see the following:

How Many Chinese Nuclear Warheads Dance on the Head of a Pin?