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At Osan Air Base, South Korea, some of the U.S. Army's Patriot PAC-2 missiles in place to counter missile strikes against air bases in South Korea. The U.S. military recently added the newer PAC-3 "hit-to-kill" variant to its Patriot force in South Korea.

At Osan Air Base, South Korea, some of the U.S. Army's Patriot PAC-2 missiles in place to counter missile strikes against air bases in South Korea. The U.S. military recently added the newer PAC-3 "hit-to-kill" variant to its Patriot force in South Korea. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Army Spc. Alan Laughter’s job is to help blast North Korean missiles out of the sky before they can slam into South Korean air bases.

Laughter is with the U.S. Army unit that has Patriot missile batteries ready around the clock at three air bases on the peninsula. His job is to hit the firing button that sends a Patriot thrusting skyward at incoming missiles.

So Laughter, pronounced “Lawter,” of Battery C, 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, is glad his unit has added a more lethal version of the Patriot to its inventory.

Called the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, or PAC-3, the battalion has placed them alongside its arsenal of PAC-2 Patriots already poised in their boxlike launch canisters.

Besides its Patriots at Osan, the battalion has batteries at Kunsan Air Base and Suwon Air Base, a South Korean air force installation where the unit is headquartered.

“We’re very happy about it,” said Laughter. “If we ever transition to war, we will probably be about four times effective as far as engagements. … We’d be able to fire a lot more missiles.”

Patriot missiles are designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, planes and helicopters.

The PAC-3 is smaller than the PAC-2, so 16 missiles will fit onto a launcher that would accommodate only four of the earlier version.

“I go from a four-missile launcher to a 16-missile launcher, so I get increased firepower,” said 1st Battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. David Pendergast.

And the PAC-3 is more accurate, faster and easier to maintain than the PAC-2, with a longer range, Pendergast said.

“But the big bang for the buck is the missile itself,” he said. “The basic differences are hardware and software. The PAC-2 missile had a warhead on it that would explode in close proximity to the target we were shooting at.”

But the Pac-3 is a “hit-to-kill” weapon — “a bullet hitting a bullet” that destroys an incoming missile just by crashing into it, Pendergast said.

“It’s like a rock hitting a rock, a train hitting a train,” he added. “The impact is enough to completely obliterate the incoming missile, its warhead, whether it was high-explosive or anything else.”

“By hitting it at the speeds we’re talking, it shatters it,” said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an 8th Army spokesman.

Citing security concerns, the Army won’t divulge the PAC-3’s speed or range, nor the number of Patriots it has in South Korea.

Though the PAC-3 relies on “hit-to-kill” when used against a ballistic missile, it also has a small-blast fragmentation warhead, a “lethality enhancer” in case it has to be used against a plane, helicopter or cruise missile.

North Korea has indicated it is pursuing a robust missile program. The communist nation possesses missiles that can strike anywhere in South Korea and parts of Japan.

The PAC-3 upgrades in South Korea are part of a U.S. plan to spend $11 million over the next three years to bolster its forces on the peninsula.


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