The THAAD system. Photo: Lockheed Martin / US Department of Defense

The US is set to significantly improve its missile defenses on Guam, fortifying its main forward operating base in the Western Pacific against evolving missile threats from China and North Korea.

In a press release this week, British Aerospace Systems announced that it had received a contract from Lockheed Martin to design and manufacture next-generation infrared seeker technology for the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) interceptor missile, providing critical sensing and guidance capabilities against ballistic missile threats.

BAE Systems claims that its seeker technology can seek and lock on to missiles flying at 17,000 miles per hour (27,300 kilometers per hour), enabling the THAAD guidance system to route interceptor missiles towards the threat. The source also notes that THAAD’s high-altitude intercept capability reduces the risk of ballistic and hypersonic weapons. In addition, its non-explosive, hit-to-kill capability minimizes the risk of detonation.

China and North Korea have fielded so-called “Guam killer” missiles, which hold US forces on the strategic island at risk.

Last August, Missile Threat reported that in July 2017, China tested its DF-26 ballistic missile against a simulated THAAD target in Inner Mongolia. The source notes that the DF-26’s 4,000-kilometer range makes it China’s first conventionally-armed ballistic missile capable of striking Guam. In addition, the source mentions that the DF-26 features a modular design, allowing quick swaps between nuclear and conventional warheads. China has built an anti-ship version of it, ostensibly to counter US aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

This January, Associated Press reported that North Korea tested its Hwasong-12 ballistic missile with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometers when fired on a standard trajectory, which is sufficient to hit Guam. The source also notes that North Korea’s January test seemed to make good on its 2017 threats to cover Guam with “enveloping fire,” following a period of animosities with the Trump Administration.

The source notes previously that North Korea tested its Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles, which have the potential to reach the US mainland. In addition, the source notes that these launches may have served to test and eliminate any remaining technological hurdles in ballistic missile design, such as protecting warheads from the intense heat and pressure of re-entry.

This US upgrade to the THAAD in Guam is part of a larger US effort to improve its missile shield over the highly strategic island. In a video interview for Defense News, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, Director, US Missile Defense Agency (MDA), states that the missile defense of Guam is the most consequential US effort to bolster missile defense.

In his video Admiral Hill says US missile defenses in Guam might face sighting challenges, – referring to the detection of missile threats, which are projected to become more complex over time. In connection to the sighting challenge besetting US missile defenses, he refers to the construction of the Long-Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska. He also mentions the Homeland Defense Radar in Hawaii (HDR-H), which is on hold due to evolving missile threats from North Korea and China.

While Hill’s remarks contain no specifics about the planned upgrades to Guam’s missile defenses, senior defense analyst Brent Sadler in a July 22 article for Breaking Defense, says that the MDA plans to rely heavily on the Aegis missile defense system. He also states that Lockheed Martin, as the only company with technical expertise on that system, will have to fulfill its contractual obligations before 2027, when the danger of a confrontation with China is believed to be the greatest.

As with Hill, Sadler states the need for multiple radars to provide 360-degree coverage of Guam. In addition to radars, he mentions the need for 42 mobile platforms with interceptor missiles, such as Aegis-equipped warships, THAAD, and Patriot missile batteries.

However, Sadler notes that US efforts to upgrade Guam’s defenses are largely belated. He states that only last year did the US attempt to integrate US Army and US Navy missile defense systems in a so-called Joint Track Management Capabilities bridge. He also points out that at present, Guam’s missile defenses consist of a disjointed combination of US THAAD systems and US Navy Aegis warships.

While Sadler notes that the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers have the C2 and missile interception capabilities necessary to defend Guam, the ships are not necessarily on hand to handle that. They may be diverted for anti-submarine missions or as a carrier battlegroup making them unavailable for missile defense. However, he mentions that the aging cruisers can serve as ad-hoc missile defense C2 nodes and floating testbeds for new missile defense systems.

Admiral Hill says that improving Guam’s missile defenses falls within the Presidential Budget 2023 (PB23) architecture. The US has not started the program to upgrade the island’s defenses but has already laid down the basic architecture for the missile defense systems on the island.

He says the MDA has already received funding to start environmental surveys to identify missile defense sites in Guam. He also emphasizes that Guam’s missile defense upgrade is a partnership between the MDA and the US Army, with the MDA handling ballistic and hypersonic missile defense capabilities. At the same time, the US Army brings in cruise missile defense.

In describing the basic architecture of Guam’s planned missile defense upgrades, Hill says that MDA and US Army systems will feature a crossover in terms of capability and will be integrated into a command suite with command and control and battle management functions. He also says that the architecture will include several radars to provide persistent, 360-degree coverage due to Guam’s strategic location and its missile threats.

Hill notes that the US Navy will be the primary executive agent in Guam, as it owns the land on the island. He says it will be the primary actor in negotiating real estate for missile defense systems with Guam’s governor and civilian authorities.

Hill also mentions some of the challenges in upgrading Guam’s missile defenses, hoping that the lessons learned in this project will apply to US homeland missile defense. As for sighting, he calls it the primary challenge in upgrading Guam’s missile defenses, noting Guam’s small size and the size requirements of missile defense radars needed to achieve complete coverage.

He cites ordnance storage as a challenge compounded by Guam’s small size. Hill points out safety concerns surrounding explosives handling, noting that electric discharge from missile defense radars can pose an explosion hazard. Apart from electrical discharge and explosive risks, he also speaks of the potential risk signals emissions from missile defense radars could pose to civilian aviation on the island.