By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea needs a multilayered missile defense system to counter growing threats from North Korea by operating a combination of short- and long-range interceptors fired from different altitudes, a senior official at Lockheed Martin said Thursday.
Orville Prins, vice president of business development for air and missile defense at the U.S. defense giant, said his company has had "serious and intense discussions" with the South Korean military to upgrade the current PAC-2 missiles to the PAC-3 system.
South Korea currently operates 48 PAC-2 missiles with blast-fragmentation warhead imported from Germany, which has an interception rate of less than 40 percent.
The defense ministry plans to upgrade the current system to "hit-to-kill" PAC-3 developed by Lockheed Martin with improved guidance accuracy as part of its midterm plan to beef up low-tier missile shields called the Korea Missile Defense System (KAMD).
In addition to the short-range interceptor, Seoul is also eyeing high-altitude, long-range missiles like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) also developed by Lockheed, which was successfully launched during a recent operational test, Prins said.
"South Korea needs THAAD or THAAD-similar system given what we know how the U.S. has operated the combination of Patriot and THAAD. Quite often, the U.S. army actually deploys PAC along with THAAD because they are interoperable and supporting each other in the layer defense," Prins said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency during his visit to Seoul.
"THAAD has a large footprint, and Patriot is a more point event that protects smaller area. Usually THAAD and Patriot are deployed together because they provide in-depth tier and layered defense capability," the former U.S. Navy pilot said. "If THAAD were to miss (a missile), then PAC can pick it up."
THAAD can intercept missiles at altitudes of up to 100 kilometers, while PAC-3 is able to fly up to 30 kilometers.
Prins said South Korea's procurement agency and the Air Force officials showed interest in long-range surface-to-air system during their visit to the U.S. in April and that discussions are currently under way on whether to acquire THAAD or develop an indigenous program that fits the role.
"The question is how you solve the needs, how soon you need it, what level of capability you need and can you can afford it," he said.
North Korea is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles with varying capabilities as well as multiple launchers that can shoot rockets, putting South Korea well within its missile range.
Seoul has been pushing to bolster its defense against the communist rival after it successfully fired off a long-range rocket last December. Pyongyang claims the launch was aimed at putting a satellite into orbit, but Seoul and Washington consider it as a covert ballistic-missile technology test.
When the North threatened to strike South Korea and U.S. Pacific islands and placed its medium-range missiles on its east coast in April, the Pentagon stationed missile interceptors in Alaska and moved Aegis guided-missile destroyers and THAAD in Guam. Japan deployed its PAC-3 batteries in its capital city Tokyo.
Looking at the growing security threat on the Korean Peninsula, Prins supported South Korea's push to create a pre-emptive missile destruction system, the so-called Kill Chain, to detect and strike North Korea's missile and nuclear facilities.
"If you can take out weapons system on the ground before it's launched, it is much better off because some you will get, some you won't get," the vice president said. "The attack operation is an important element in this integrated approach to solve this problem."
Prins said the PAC-3 system can fit into Korea's low-tier missile program currently under development as it can tackle both air-breathing threats from aircraft, drones and cruise missiles, as well as ballistic missiles that carry weapons of mass destruction.
"Where the PAC-3 system fits into the KAMD is that it's the central piece," he said. "It tends to be shorter range, so what it ends up is providing (what) you might call a 'point defense' capability."
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