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Meet THAAD, the bloated defense project that might protect Guam from a North Korean missile strike

  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The United States is moving the anti-missile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, seen in the  video above) to the Pacific island of Guam after North Korea said on Wednesday it had “ratified”  a nuclear strike on the United States. Announcing the decision, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that North Korea presents a “real and clear danger.”

North Korea has ordered South Koreans to leave a joint manufacturing complex near the two countries’ border by April 10, part of an on-going series of North Korean diplomatic provocation followed by American military deployments. So far, we’ve seen various threats of war, re-opened nuclear plants, B-2 Bombers, nuclear submarines and the USS John McCain.

The deployment of the anti-missile battery shows the situation has reached a dangerous point where North Korea can’t afford to let itself be seen as backing down. Here’s a terrifying Foreign Policy interview with “weapons guru” John Pike:

“Possession of nuclear weapons implies a willingness to use them,” Pike said. “If the North Korean leadership felt that a demonstration test against a military target would be of some value, an airburst over Guam would be on the short list.” An air burst is a detonation of a bomb in the air at altitude, rather than near or at ground level.
But Pike questioned why the Pentagon announcement said the mobile system would be deployed “in the coming weeks” when the North Korean threat seems imminent.
“I don’t understand what the hold-up is. The party’s going to be over by then,” he said. “I’d rather hear ‘in the coming days.’”

Oh, and there’s another problem: The system, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and a bevvy of America’s other top defense contractors, might not work that well.

In early tests during the nineties, THAAD, for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, Systems had about the same success rate as, well, North Korea’s rockets do today, an example government spending gone wrong. The program is set to be scaled back as part of the Obama administration’s defense spending cuts.

In October 2012 the system hit four out of five targets in a test that boosted Lockheed Martin’s stock, but critics worry it won’t be as effective against medium or long-range targets, like North Korea’s missiles.

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