The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, commonly referred to by its abbreviation THAAD, is an anti-missile ballistic interceptor of the United States. It’s the only U.S. system capable of intercepting targets inside and outside the atmosphere. Check out this fact sheet display and the timeline on which this defensive weapon has been in service or seen combat.
What is THAAD?
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a mobile, transportable, ground-based anti-missile defense system. It shoots down incoming short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile threats in their terminal or final phase, which is right after the missile reenters the atmosphere or right before the warhead lands on its target.
This military defense system is one of the terminal phase interceptors under the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Other terminal phase anti-ballistic interceptor elements include the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System and the Army PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3).
The THAAD’s primary purpose is to defend the troops, allies, population hubs, high-value infrastructure, and other key assets of the United States anywhere around the world in only a matter of hours. Below are the system’s headlining features:
- Mobile compact design for quick deployment
- Hit-to-kill precision using kinetic projectiles
- Integrated with hypergolic bi-propellants
- Greater accuracy with the Divert Attitude Control System
- Better control with thrust vectoring nozzle
- Equipped with lightning strike mitigation properties
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What comprises a THAAD battery
The system’s battery comprises four primary components: interceptor missiles, a launch vehicle, an AN/TPY-2 radar, and a fire control and communications system. A typical THAAD battery consists of up to nine launchers, each with up to eight interceptor missiles. It also comprises two fire and communications systems and a ground-based X-radar.
Measuring a total of 6.2 m long and 0.4 m in diameter and weighing 662 kg, its interceptor missile maximizes the potential of kinetic energy to shoot down targets with a hit-to-kill precision upon collision. It comprises two parts: a booster and a kill vehicle.
The THAAD interceptor missile booster, made out of carbon fiber, is propelled by hypergolic bi-propellants. Meanwhile, the kill vehicle is equipped with a gimbal infrared seeker to enable precise interception of targets in its terminal phase.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense launcher is the system that carries the interceptor missiles. It’s usually affixed to a 4-axle heavy expanded mobility tactical truck (HEMTT). Each launcher can carry six to eight interceptor missiles. Each launch takes up to 30 minutes to reload.
THAAD uses the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2) radar to detect enemy threats up to 3,000 km. The AN/TPY-2 can be deployed in two modes: (1) forward-based mode (FBM), which detects targets at their initial ascent, and (2) terminal mode (TM), which tracks targets at their terminal phase.
THAAD fire and communications system
The system’s fire and communications system is composed of multiple parts to control the firing of interceptor missiles and relay information to its other components. It incorporates a Tactical Operations Station consisting of two operating stations and a Launch Control Station.
THAAD is activated when the AN/TPY-2 radar intercepts an enemy missile within range. Information such as the target, distance, speed, and projectile are recorded and relayed to the fire control and communications systems. Data is sent in real-time to ensure hit-to-kill precision of the interception upon launching the missiles.
The fire control and communications systems trigger the launch of the interceptor missile. It sends constant updates to the missile to accurately calibrate the projected interception point before its launch. Once the target reaches the terminal phase, the interceptor missile is launched at the enemy project, destroying it in the atmosphere.
Recent development and benefits
The initial development of THAAD dates back to Congress’ calls to develop a “deployable TMD (theater missile defense) demonstration system” over three decades ago. In 1992, the U.S. Army kickstarted the Program Development and Risk Reduction (PDPR), which held various engineering test flights.Its initial success test fight was recorded in August 1999.
Amid continuous developments, it wasn’t until 2007 that the first government contract was signed with Lockheed Martin. Simultaneously, its management was transferred to the Missile Defense Agency. The first foreign military sales were completed upon signing a deal with the United Arab Emirates in 2011.
Over the course of its development, THAAD was able to achieve a hundred percent mission success rate in the last 14 development and operational tests, including 13-for-13 successful mission interceptions. The data is backed by Lockheed Martin and MDA tests, showing similar success rates.
THAAD’s edge against other terminal-phase ballistic missile interceptors is its extended range. It can intercept targets within 200 kilometers. Aside from range, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense is also developed to intercept missiles at higher altitudes up to 150 kilometers into the atmosphere. It’s a tier above most systems that can only intercept at altitudes of 25 km and range of up to 40 km.
THAAD can intercept missiles inside (endoatmospheric) and outside (exoatmospheric) the atmosphere. It is the only anti-ballistic missile interceptor of the United States equipped with this capability. It makes it a more appealing system for foreign military sales in other nations, especially those with hostile relationships with their neighbors.
Combat and service timeline of THAAD
THAAD has been in the service of the United States Army since 2012. Since its initial deployment, the anti-ballistic missile system has also been deployed in several U.S. territories and military bases worldwide. Take a look at its service history below:
- 2008 – THAAD was initially deployed ahead of the original schedule.
- 2011 – The first foreign military sale was made with the United Arab Emirates.
- 2012 – The Army fielded two batteries at Fort Bliss, Texas.
- 2013 – A THAAD battery was deployed to Guam as a response to North Korean threats to the U.S. territory.
- 2015 – The Army facilitated the training of the THAAD force with the opening of a training center at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The facility produced five active THAAD batteries.
- 2017 – Its first comprehensive system was activated in Seongju, South Korea.
- 2019 – The Army deployed seven THAAD batteries—three of which are outside of the continental United States, including Guam and South Korea
- 2022 – THAAD was finally used in combat interception against an incoming medium-range ballistic missile in the UAE.
Latest news about THAAD
THAAD is a best-in-class anti-missile ballistic interceptor system in the world. It’s what appeals to other nations to purchase a system of their own, too. Aside from the United States, countries owning this defense instrument include the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, protecting their territories, infrastructure, and key interests.
Furthermore, the system’s deployment in other countries caused a spark in regional affairs and escalated unresolved geopolitical conflicts. One such example is the increasing concern of Russia and China that the presence of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea may invade their territory and compromise the security of its critical assets.
Nevertheless, THAAD remains one of the premier anti-ballistic missile interceptors, playing a significant role in global defense affairs.
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