ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — The nickname for the anti-ballistic missile task force stationed here doesn’t leave much doubt from what direction the threat is expected to come.
“We’re the Musudan Manglers,” Lt. Col. Jefferey Slown said during a recent tour of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense unit, or THAAD, he commands.
Musudan is one of the names for the intermediate-range ballistic missiles possessed by North Korea, which potentially have the range to carry a nuclear warhead as far as the Philippines and Guam.
“That’s what we concentrate heavily on,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s only North Korea. We can protect against any threat that may come into Guam.”
Even though some Pacific nations have felt threatened by China’s expanding navy and claims of sovereignty over disputed islands, it’s North Korea that poses the imminent threat from intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea’s unpredictable and sometimes paranoid leadership announced Wednesday that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.
Nuclear experts are still assessing that claim, but the underground explosion is the latest reminder that there’s a lot at stake.
“The THAAD missile battery is first and foremost a protection against a North Korean missile launch, which is the most realistic scenario one could imagine,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, said during an interview before the North Korean test.
“North Korea could miscalculate; there could be an accident; they could be desperate — for any one of those reasons they could well fire something out at Guam — especially if we were part of an intervention force to keep peace or order, however good our intentions were,” Cronin said.
The U.S. flew a B-52 from Guam to Osan, South Korea, on Sunday, in a show of force to Pyongyang.
The Guam THAAD battery is also important because it could be deployed relatively quickly to South Korea.
“If there is a further provocation or set of provocations that are sufficient to warrant the need for a stronger demonstration of force, upgrading our missile defense coverage in Korea would be one of the easiest ways to demonstrate resolve without actually doing something provocative to create the war we’re trying to prevent,” Cronin said.
The U.S. has been keen to bring THAAD to South Korea, but the government there has been unwilling to do so, given the objections by China and North Korea, and possibly Russia. The latest test might change that diplomatic calculation.
No decisions had been made on the potential deployment of THAAD to South Korea as of Friday, said Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman.
THAAD was part of a complex, $230 million test in November on Wake Island in the western Pacific Ocean, where it simultaneously destroyed targets simulating short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that had been launched by a C-17 transport plane.
The THAAD system is designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their “terminal” phase, meaning the point where they re-enter the lower atmosphere after traveling in space.
They don’t carry a warhead, but destroy missiles by simply smashing into them. The destructive collision reduces the chances of a missile’s warhead exploding, but radioactive and chemical contaminants could be released.
Slown described a THAAD interceptor as a “fist.”
“It’s really a bullet against a bullet, way out in space,” he said.
There’s a lot behind that fist. About 110 soldiers operate the communications, supercomputers and radar equipment in 24-hour shifts at Site Armadillo — so-named because the location resembles that creature on certain radar images. Those soldiers are deployed here for one year from Fort Bliss, Texas, without their families.
Another roughly 75 soldiers make up the security force, and 10 more are with the signal detachment. They’re deployed from Hawaii, and their mission is part of the expeditionary-style Pacific Pathways that’s intended to keep soldiers out in the field for lengthy periods.
The Hawaii soldiers rotate every 135 to 180 days.
“As I tell folks all the time,” Slown said, “I might not have quantity, but I have quality.”
Task Force Talon is in the process of establishing a permanent facility at Site Armadillo, which would allow the 110 THAAD soldiers to formally PCS to Andersen Air Force Base here with their families.
Site Armadillo feels remote because it is. It’s in a jungle clearing miles from the main Andersen base, and the roar of a massive generator that could light a small town envelops all. The site is bounded by the densely wooded Conservation Area No. 50 on one side.
“The only thing that we know lives in there are two pigs, Pork Chop and Bacon Bit,” Slown said of the pair named by soldiers. “They’re pro-Army, yes sir.”
Despite the seclusion, Slown waxed lyrical about Task Force Talon’s future as a permanent station.
“Even though we might have temporary soldiers out here, and our site may be temporary, we have a vision; we want soldiers to believe that this is the best place to be,” Slown said. “We say that because we think we’re the Army’s and the air defense artillery’s assignment of choice.”