In late November, Pyongyang successfully test-launched what American military experts called a Hwasong-15 ICBM, the largest North Korean missile tested to date with a presumably long-enough range to deliver nuclear warheads deep into the US mainland, presstv.com reported.
David Schmerler, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), told CNN that Pyongyang “wanted (to be able) to hit all of the US and they wanted something big to hit it with,” and the new Hwasong-15 “seems on the surface level to be that missile.”
Days after the test, US congressmen Mike Rogers and Adam Smith both suggested that the Pentagon was considering installing THAAD batteries on two sites across the West Coast to repel a possible missile attack. The system has already been deployed to South Korea.
The news renewed debate over the highly-controversial missile system’s ability to neuter the missiles before they reach the target.
US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system equipment is seen at a former golf course in the southern county of Seongju, South Korea, September 4, 2017. (AFP)
The entire US mainland is already shielded against ICBMs by the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is designed to destroy ICBMs in space and before their re-entry. But the missile system’s limited supply of 44 batteries and high-failure rates of over 50 percent makes it unreliable.
That brings into play THAAD, which, as its name suggests, is supposed to target missiles as they plunge on their targets in the terminal phase of their trajectory.
Despite its success in all interception tests, nearly all sources agree it’s designed to shoot down short — and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, not ICBMs.
Missile defense systems like THAAD have little time to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles in their terminal phase and before the warhead’s detonation. While THAAD has proven effective in this area, there is a consensus that it lacks both the necessary speed and the range.
To hit long distance targets, ICBMs need to fly with over twenty times the speed of sound at altitudes thousands of kilometers high.
This means THAAD missiles with a maximum speed of Mach 8 and a 150-km range stand little chance to shoot down a long-range ballistic missile. Even if they could, the limited range means they can secure the sky over small swathes of land and would only provide a nationwide protection when deployed in high numbers across all metropolitan areas.
To address the system’s shortcomings, THAAD manufacturer Lockheed has proposed a THAAD-ER system, which improves the seeker radars and uses two-stage missiles that provide three times the range.
However, even if the model proves effective in practice, it would take Lockheed four years to develop the upgraded THAAD system, which remains a mere design concept for now.
The Hwasong-15 that was test-fired on November 28, flew to an altitude of 4,500km, higher than any missile previously tested by the North.
Missile experts said the missile would have easily flown 13,000 kilometers had North Korean officials chosen a more conventional trajectory.
This is a huge improvement over the missile’s previous iteration, Hwasong 14, which reached a maximum altitude of 3,724.9 kilometers during a test in July.
Another sign that proves Hwasong-15 to be a huge achievement for North Korea in terms of technology is the gimbaled system that it is equipped with and allows to use the exhaust nozzle of the engine to guide the rocket instead of fins to thrusters.