Can American THAAD Missile Systems Bolster Ukraine’s Security? Washington May Make First Deployments

Amid high tensions between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe, which have for several months centred around Belarus and Ukraine, the United States has reportedly begun to consider deliveries of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system to bolster the Ukrainian military. This came after the government in Kiev requested U.S. deployments of THAAD systems to its territory which was first reported on February 7. The systems would reportedly be deployed near Kharkov on Ukrainian territory, including AN/TPY-2 radars that will be able to detect targets up to 1,000km into Russian territory. This would mirror prior deployments of the THAAD system to South Korea in 2016, where they were similarly seen to compromise the security of Russia as well as China by allowing U.S. forces operating them to detect targets deep into the territories of the two countries using the system's sensors. 

The THAAD system first entered service in the U.S. Military in 2008 after a protracted development of over 20 years, and saw its first ever combat use on January 2022 when it reportedly intercepted a ballistic missile launched by Yemeni Ansurullah Coalition insurgents against the United Arab Emirates. Systems have been deployed outside the U.S. to the UAE, South Korea, Israel and Romania. While Russia has protested the buildup of American missile defences in Europe particularly in the territory of the former Moscow-led Warsaw Pact alliance, namely because it claims this could erode the mutual vulnerability to nuclear missile strikes that prevented a great power war since the 1950s, the deployment of such systems in Ukraine would likely be seen as a far more imminent threat to Russian security. Much like deployments to South Korea, THAAD would be particularly threatening not for its ability to defend targets in its vicinity, but primarily because its sensors could provide cueing information on missile launches across much of Russia to other NATO missile defence assets including space-based and naval systems. Russian ballistic missiles, including hypersonic platforms, are most vulnerable to being tracked and targeted when ascending in their early low speed stages.

Although deployment of THAAD systems has the potential to significantly improve U.S. strategic missile defence capabilities, its benefit for defending Ukraine itself remains questionable. THAAD’s extreme specialisation leaves it near defenceless against aircraft and low flying cruise and ballistic missiles, meaning particularly if deployed near the Russian border strikes by Russian assets such as Iskander or Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles or Ka-52 attack helicopters would be very difficult to defend against. Ukraine’s lack of a modern air force or air defence network limits its ability to protect THAAD systems on its territory. The system could nevertheless impact the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia if manned and operated by U.S. personnel, which it almost certainly would be, as this would effectively commit the United States to Ukraine’s defence and place American forces in the firing line in the event that either Russian or Ukrainian forces were to attack the other. 

While THAAD itself would remain vulnerable without additional American assets protecting it, the presence of American personnel would make it far more likely that the U.S. would be drawn into a potential clash between Russia and Ukraine. Deployments would also pose risks for the United States, however, since should a Russian campaign against Ukraine not target THAAD, Washington would need to make a hard decision on whether to use the system or whether to quickly evacuate it to prevent it from being captured by Russian forces. Should a deployment materialise, the presence of THAAD systems are expected to add considerable complexity to the dynamics of the standoff over Ukraine, and could present both a threat and a potential opportunity for Russia.

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