June 6, 2011: The U.S. Army recently received its first two production model THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile missiles. Last year, the army conducted another successful test firing of THAAD, demonstrating the system's ability to hit targets closer to the ground, and to share data with Patriot anti-missile systems. This was the seventh (out of seven) successful test since 2005. There have been 20 tests since 1995, 14 of them successful. THAAD entered service in 2008, with pre-production missiles for use in further testing.
Two years ago, the army formed its second THAAD anti-ballistic missile (ABM) battery. The army will form two more THAAD batteries over the next year. Five years ago, there was a successful test of THAAD (a SCUD type target was destroyed in flight) using a crew of soldiers, and not manufacturer technicians, to operate the system.
Each THAAD battery has 24 missiles, three launchers and a fire control communications system. This includes an X-Band radar. The gear for each battery costs $310 million. The six meter (18 foot) long THAAD missiles weigh 837 kg (1,400 pounds). This is about the same size as the Patriot anti-aircraft missile, but twice the weight of the anti-missile version of the Patriot.
The range of THAAD is 200 kilometers, max altitude is 150 kilometers, and it is intended for short (like SCUD) or medium range (up to 2,000 kilometer) range ballistic missiles. THAAD has been in development for two decades. Ultimately, the army would like to buy at least 18 launchers, 1,400 missiles, and 18 radars. THAAD is a step up from the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile (which is an anti-aircraft missile adapted to take out incoming missiles). The PAC-3 works, but it has limited (20 kilometers) range.
The navy has also modified its Standard anti-aircraft missile system to operate like the PAC-3. This system, the RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3), has a longer range than THAAD (over 500 kilometers) and max altitude of 160 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the failed anti-missile version of the Standard 2, and costs over three million dollars each. The Standard 3 has four stages. The first two stages boost the interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the interceptor farther beyond the earth's atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth stage is the 20 pound LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close on the target and ram it.
Thus the U.S. has three anti-missile systems, although one of them currently only operates from warships (cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles.) AEGIS can also be operated from land bases, and the manufacturer is offering such a system to export customers.