The Defense Ministry has virtually rejected the Navy’s request to consider introducing the Standard Missile-3 mid-course interceptors, multiple sources privy to the issue told The Korea Herald on Monday.
The Navy unofficially requested recently that the ministry weigh the option of purchasing the missiles to enhance the strategic value of its Aegis-equipped destroyers and better handle North Korea’s escalating missile threats.
The ministry has made no response in an apparent rejection of the request, sources said.
The Navy currently runs three Aegis destroyers but with no missile interceptors. Critics have deridingly likened the top-of-the-line vessel to a gun with no bullets. The per-unit price of the vessel is around 1.1 trillion won ($1 billion).
For the Seoul government, introducing such a high-profile interception system is a sensitive issue as it could be seen as joining the U.S.-led ballistic missile defense program that could target China and Russia.
Seoul has made it clear that it is seeking to develop a “low-tier” missile shield system specifically designed for Korean terrain features and security conditions, which is different from the U.S. global multi-layered defense program.
As the backbone of the U.S. naval interception program, the SM-3 is designed to defend against missile attacks at altitudes of around 150 km in the “mid-course” phase. If the SM-3 interception fails, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 of the U.S. military is activated to intercept incoming missiles at altitudes of around15 km in the “terminal” phase.
Critics said the SM-3 missile system, which costs around 15 billion won apiece, was not suited to defend against short-range North Korean missiles as it is for intercepting mid-range ballistic missiles.
But proponents said the SM-3 could enhance the country’s overall deterrence capabilities as the North could fire mid-range missiles as well to attack South Korea by adjusting the amount of fuel and direction.
“Seoul has been focusing on bolstering the low-tier missile defense, believing the North would fire only short-range missiles on the South. In that case, the North could fire longer-range missiles and adjust them for South Korean targets during wartime,” said a security expert, declining to be named.
“With the SM-3, the South can limit the North’s strategic missile options that could damage South Korean territory.”
As Pyongyang has recently ratcheted up missile and nuclear threats, Seoul has been striving to bolster its missile defense efforts.
For low-tier missile defense, the South Korean military currently has 48 PAC-2 missiles, which it has deployed since 2009. It is now seeking to introduce the more advanced PAC-3 system.
The PAC-2 missiles with fragmentation-type warheads are less lethal than the PAC-3 with warheads employing “hit-to-kill” technology.
Seoul has also sought to accelerate the development of the “Kill Chain,” a preemptive strike system, and deploying strategic ballistic missiles, which can cover the whole of the communist state.
Despite such efforts, skeptics said Seoul’s missile defense strategy faced many operational challenges including the North’s operation of mobile launchers that would make it difficult to track the origin of missile attacks.
The North reportedly has up to 40 mobile launchers that can carry Scud missiles with ranges of between 300 and 1,000 km, up to 40 launchers for Rodong missiles with a range of 1,300 km, and 14 launchers for Musudan missiles with ranges of between 3,000 km and 4,000 km.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com