The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program brings a unique contribution to the U.S.-led Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) because it is the first element developed explicitly to shoot down short to intermediate range ballistic missiles inside and outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
THAAD’s design enables it to destroy theater ballistic missiles before they enter the terminal phase of flight, which normally occurs within the final minute of a missile’s course. Destroying missiles at high altitudes is considered a major advantage for two distinct reasons. First, an enemy missile loaded with weapons of mass destruction will burn up in the atmosphere, mitigating the threat to humans on the ground. And second, as it begins to reenter the atmosphere it is difficult for an enemy missile to launch decoys and countermeasures to trick interceptors.
The truck-mounted THAAD system is made up of launchers, interceptors, radars and command and control components that can all fit inside a C-130 aircraft for rapid deployment anywhere in the world within a matter of hours. The system also benefits from having launchers that can be reloaded very quickly with new interceptors (normally less than 30 minutes). Every THAAD-equipped truck carries eight interceptor missiles, each being a little over 20 feet long, weighing about 2000 pounds and “powered by a single stage solid fuel rocket motor with thrust vectoring.”
After a THAAD interceptor is launched it receives targeting data from ground-based X-band radar. Following the booster’s burnout stage, the interceptor’s kill vehicle separates and an infrared seeker in its nose locks on to the incoming missile as liquid-fueled thrusters called the Divert and Attitude Control System (DAVS) power the kill vehicle toward the intended target.
THAAD’s capability to intercept outside the atmosphere and its facility to accept cues and link with other BMD components, such as satellites and external sensors, greatly extends its coverage area and strengthens the overall system. This ability nicely complements lower tier terminal phase systems, like the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), which destroys missiles much closer to impact. The Patriot is the most mature element of BMDS and by military accounts proved invaluable in shooting down Iraqi SCUD-like missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
The Arrow, an anti-ballistic missile system designed jointly by the U.S. and Israel, and the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a co-developmental program with Germany and Italy, are two other terminal phase missile defense systems. The Arrow has already been deployed in Israel and enables the tiny country to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. MEADS is being designed to counter ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. MEADS’s function in ballistic missile defense is to fill the void between man-portable systems like the Stinger missile and the upper tier THAAD system.
The THAAD program was started in 1992 as the U.S. Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense project. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) now manages the system but plans continue for a full transition of operations back to the Army. Soldiers of the Army’s 6th Air Defense Artillery Brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas operated the THAAD equipment during recent tests. “Their interaction with the complete THAAD system provided valuable test and operations experience for the soldiers and enhanced the operational realism of the test,” an MDA press release stated.
The THAAD system had a dismal test success ratio during the late 1990’s, missing six out of eight of its attempted intercepts. Many people chalked THAAD up as a dreadfully expensive failure. However, engineers working on THAAD have been busy modifying the system to fix many of its problems. A new phase of developmental testing began with a November 22, 2005 successful flight test of a THAAD interceptor missile.
Under its upgraded and current program phase, THAAD has completed three successful intercept tests, the most recent occurring April 6. This was the 26th successful “hit to kill” intercept test for elements of the Ballistic Missile Defense System since 2001, MDA officials reported.
“Hit to kill” means that a hostile missile is destroyed when the interceptor’s kill vehicle physically collides into it without the use of a warhead. The April 6 THAAD test is considered its first truly integrated BMDS mission because multiple BMD components participated in the trial.
If its progress stays on course, THAAD is likely to be deployed before 2010. Military officials have suggested that over time the THAAD system will acquire additional improvements that will permit it to counter longer-range ballistic missile threats. THAAD’s ability to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles will greatly add to both homeland and theatre missile defense.
Find Archived Articles: