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China Forcefully Opposes U.S. Missile Defense System In South Korea

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And to better understand this American missile defense system in South Korea and why China opposes it, we're going to talk to Michael Elleman. He's a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Thanks for coming in.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Thank you.

MCEVERS: OK, so this is a missile defense system. It's being built to protect South Korea against any aggression from North Korea. Why then is China so opposed to it?

ELLEMAN: Well, China is primarily concerned with the future of missile defense in the Asia Pacific. This particular deployment will not threaten its nuclear deterrent. However, they fear that in the future, as the United States supersizes its overall missile defense architecture, that that would become a problem or a threat to the nuclear forces.

MCEVERS: So basically China's concerned that this would give the U.S. an edge...

ELLEMAN: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...And presumably if China and the U.S. were ever to get into some kind of conflict. Is that the idea?

ELLEMAN: Well, yes. The Chinese have a - actually a small number of nuclear weapons. They believe in minimum deterrence. And if the United States is able to have the capacity to knock down a large percentage of their nuclear weapons, then they might be in a situation where they cannot feel comfortable that they can retaliate and deter the United States at some point.

MCEVERS: It's also a radar. I mean is there any indication that the U.S. plans to use this system to monitor China's activities?

ELLEMAN: Well, THAAD uses a very powerful radar to detect and then track any threatening missile. The radar will be pointed towards North Korea. China tests its missiles off to the west of the Korean Peninsula, so that radar would have to be re-oriented. It's not a simple thing to do.

MCEVERS: OK.

ELLEMAN: And the Chinese would obviously see that it's been reoriented 'cause they would detect the signals.

MCEVERS: OK, so that's something that's just more theoretical and in the future than right now.

ELLEMAN: Yes.

MCEVERS: And the way this system is worked - right? - it's basically, you know, a bullet hitting another bullet, right? It's firing something to stop something else in the air. How hard is that to do? I mean how effective is this system?

ELLEMAN: Well, we don't know how effective it will be in battle. It has never been used in combat. It has been subjected to evaluation on the test range, and it has a fairly decent record of - about 80 percent of the time, it succeeds in intercepting a missile. The problem is, in battle, there are a lot of unforeseen debris in the air and things of that nature, electronic jamming. So that could confound the system.

So you know, it's an unknown. And I think the first couple days of any battle in which it's deployed, it may not perform as well as expect or hoped. But I think as we gain more experience on the battlefield, it will achieve or come close to achieving its design goals, which is about an 80 percent intercept rate for a single interceptor.

MCEVERS: You talked about, you know, after a couple of days, things could be ironed out. You know, the system would figure out what was going on. But you know, theoretically, if North Korea were to launch a nuclear weapon in that timeframe, I mean it would be game over, right?

ELLEMAN: Yes, it would. But I think it's important to remember that the THAAD system is primarily - and missile defense in general in - within the theater - is designed to protect against conventional threats and minimize the damage much the way air defense minimizes enemy aircraft capability. Against nuclear weapons, you know, one or two is going to get through no matter how good your defense is. So to believe that it's going to protect you in that way I think would be a bit of hubris.

MCEVERS: Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., thank you very much.

ELLEMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD JONES SONG, "BILLIE-DOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.