US Test of THAAD Missile Defense Blocks Fastest Target to Date Amid Rising Tensions in Asia

July 11, 2017 Updated: July 11, 2017

With North Korea threatening a nuclear attack against the United States, and the Chinese regime’s ongoing military posturing in the South China Sea, the United States announced that its missile intercept system successfully neutralized its fastest moving target to date in its latest test.

The United States tested its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system against an aerial launched ballistic missile, a spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency said Tuesday.

During the test, a THAAD system located at Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska, detected, tracked, and intercepted what Missile Defense calls “a threat representative intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target.”

It was the first time THAAD had been tested against an IRBM, having previously taken down several shorter-range missiles.

Chris Johnson, MDA spokesman, said soldiers involved in the test did not know the date or time of the simulated attack ahead of time.

Johnson could not speak to the speed or altitude of the test missile, but said it did leave the atmosphere and was the longest and fastest threat missile tested so far.

The THAAD system is not geared for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which travel much faster and are countered in the U.S. by the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense. THAAD is aimed at short and intermediate range missiles more common to regional conflicts like those on the Korean Peninsula.

Johnson could not say whether the 14 successful tests of the system were a large number, but said the military had no doubts about its capability.

“We are entirely confident in this system. It has had a perfect track record,” said Johnson.

His comments were echoed by superiors at MDA and manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the government and contractor team who executed this flight test today,” said MDA Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves in a statement.

Greaves said the demonstration bolstered American defensive capability against North Korea’s developing missile threat. 

A Lockheed Martin senior executive said their system “performed flawlessly.” 

Escalating Tensions

China and Russia have denounced the THAAD system, which is awaiting full deployment in South Korea, saying its presence there would escalate tensions in East Asia.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on July 5, the day after North Korea successfully tested an ICBM that experts say could reach Alaska, representatives from China and Russia condemned the THAAD deployment.

“The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in North-East Asia is a serious blow to the interests of the strategic security of States of the region,” said Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

China’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., Liu Jieyi, called for the system’s deployment to be cancelled immediately.

“We have always been firmly opposed to chaos and conflict in the region, and military means should not be considered an option in that regard,” said Liu.

North Korea, for its part, lives or dies on trade with China, which accounts for up to 75 percent of North Korea’s imports and exports, with trade volumes rising recently.

American and Chinese soldiers faced each other in the Korean war, which China officially calls the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”

But despite recent missile tests and ongoing military exercises, the approach to North Korea is primarily diplomatic, defense secretary James Mattis said days after North Korea’s ICBM test.

“This is a diplomatically led international effort to stop a worldwide threat that they are bringing to bear,” he said on July 7.

“We also see economic aspects to the diplomatic effort to divert them from this wrong path.”

The United States has also increased pressure on China with economic sanctions targeting Chinese companies and individuals “for their continued support of North Korea’s activities.

The Treasury Department declared the Bank of Dandong, a “primary money-laundering concern,” and proposed to sever it entirely from the U.S. financial system, following a 60-day review period.

While diplomatic and economic efforts are taking precedence, the United States and its allies in the region have also signaled they are prepared for more forceful engagement.

The United States and Japan recently conducted joint night operations in the East China Sea and U.S. bombers flew over international waters in the South China Sea that China is attempting to lay claim to.

Meanwhile, China’s increased military presence in the Indian Ocean prompted the United States, Japan, and India to conduct the largest naval exercise there in over two decades.

The countries have deployed front-line warships, submarines, and aircraft in Exercise Malabar, an annual exercise that rotates throughout the region. Australia and Singapore have also participated in the exercise.

This year’s exercise began on July 10.

This article was corrected from an earlier version to indicate the THAAD system was awaiting full deployment in South Korea. Installation of the system was halted part way due to protest from the Chinese regime.