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By Kris Osborn

The Missile Defense Agency is stepping up production, deployment and modernization of its cutting edge ballistic missile defense platform called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, officials said.

The platform, which fires an interceptor missile to knock out, destroy or explode and approaching enemy threat, is designed for what’s called the “terminal phase” of ballistic missile defense – that last part of its trajectory when it is leaving space and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere toward its target.

In response to the instability in North Korea and the country’s provocative actions, the U.S. has already stepped-up THAAD’s presence in the Pacific by deploying THAAD to Guam.

“One unit is deployed to Guam in 2013 in response to the North Korean threat in the Pacific area of operations. We continue procurement of THAAD equipment, including 24 interceptors,” Vice Adm. James Syring, told reporters at a recent Pentagon briefing.  
Now, in light of recent activities such as North Korea’s satellite launch – which could be used to develop offensive ballistic missile technology – there are several reports that the Pentagon is talking to South Korea about deploying THAAD there. Such a move, reported by publications such as Business Insider, would greatly enhance regional protections against potential North Korean hostility or missile launches.

Given this development, numerous reports now say China is publicly criticizing the proposed move of THAAD to South Korea.

The Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, is also stepping up production of the system. The 2017 budget request includes a total of $370 million for THAAD, an effort to reach the goal of delivery 61 additional interceptors to the Army by the end of 17, Syring explained. This will bring the Army’s total inventory up to a total of 205, he added.

That is a truck-mounted missile system which uses radar and fire-control technology to identify approaching enemy missiles and fire a kinetic-energy interceptor to collide with and destroy the incoming threat, Lockheed Martin information specifies. There are eight THAAD missiles per launcher, according to the MDA.

Also, although THAAD is primarily a “terminal” phase defense weapon, its developers also say it can destroy targets above the atmosphere as well.

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Next-Generation THAAD

Alongside deployments and production of the existing THAAD platform, the MDA is also considering a high-tech upgrade to the system which would give the interceptor more capability and range. The new enhancement, called THAAD Extended Range or “ER” has been proposed by Lockheed Martin and could be ready in about 10 years.

“That's the notional timeframe (mid-to-late 2020s) that a future E.R., if it was approved, program would deliver. It's about a 10-year development program,” Syring said.  

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THAAD ER is a concept that Lockheed Martin is recommending to the Missile Defense Agency as a way to evolve the THAAD interceptor to expand its altitude and down-range capability, Lockheed officials said. Thus far, the system is being developed under Lockheed Martin independent R&D funding.

“At this point, the effort is a study of a potential technology, the type of study we have provided to the MDA and other Defense Department agencies many times in the past.

In the concept we are recommending, a two-stage interceptor would be integrated into the existing weapon system, giving THAAD more velocity to provide cost-effective missile defense capability over large areas,” Lynn Fisher, Lockheed Martin spokeswomen, told Scout Warrior.  

“As global threats continue to advance, we believe our proposed THAAD ER concept would offer needed capabilities.”

Naturally, if a THAAD interceptor were able to knock out approaching threats at farther ranges, that would potentially better protect land-based targets.