The South Korean military soon will weigh a proposal to add three Aegis missile warships to its naval fleet, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Wednesday, citing an anonymous insider.
The news comes as South Korea is bolstering its domestic missile defenses in response to North Korea's expanding missile and nuclear capabilities. Seoul has resisted U.S. requests to join it in establishing a regional longer-range ballistic missile defense shield, fearing that doing so would anger China, and continued to express reservations on Wednesday.
"We have to consider the short missile range on the Korean Peninsula and the enormous price" of the U.S. missile-defense effort, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was quoted by Yonhap in a separate story as telling journalists.
The South Korean navy made its request for the three additional Aegis ships to its Joint Chiefs of Staff a year ago, and the "JCS will discuss the plan in a meeting slated for next month," the military source told Yonhap.
The South already has three destroyers equipped with Aegis missile-tracking radar. Should the proposal be given the go-ahead, work on the new destroyers will start between 2020 and 2025, the source said.
Seoul has been interested in acquiring missile interceptors that can destroy ballistic-missile targets in the last phase of their flight. This makes the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System produced by Lockheed Martin a strong candidate for acquisition, according to the Korea Times.
"Our military is ... looking into various measures to bolster the terminal phase, low-altitude defense to effectively counter North Korea's nuclear and missile threats," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said to reporters.
The THAAD system is designed to eliminate short, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles after they have re-entered Earth's atmosphere. South Korea's neighbor Japan is also reportedly pondering purchasing THAAD technology.
"South Korea's procurement agency and Air Force officials showed interest in long-range surface-to-air systems during their visit to the U.S. in April," Lockheed Martin vice president of business development for air and missile defense Orville Prins told Yonhap in September. "Discussions are currently under way on whether to acquire THAAD or develop an indigenous program that fits the role."
Kim on Wednesday told parliament there is no present plan to acquire THAAD or Standard Missile 3 interceptors for Aegis warships, according to the second Yonhap story.
"Under the South Korea-U.S. joint deterrence posture, we can share the American weapons system to detect and track North Korean missiles, which is very useful," the minister said.
The South is focusing its evolving Korea Air and Missile Defense framework on defending against cruise and lower-flying nonstrategic ballistic missiles. South Korea plans to enhance its Patriot system, which currently is equipped with PAC-2 interceptors, with more-capable PAC-3 missiles.
At the same time, there are concerns PAC-3 interceptors would not be adequate by themselves if North Korea fires ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear or chemical warheads. In order to limit the impact of potential chemical or radioactive fallout from a destroyed warhead, the reentry vehicle would have to be intercepted at high-altitude.
"As PAC-3 is able to fly up to [19 miles], it must intercept a missile at one go and there might be collateral damage if a missile tipped with chemical or nuclear warheads is intercepted," a military source told Yonhap.
"However, the THAAD system has a range of [93 miles], so there will be two opportunities to shoot targets down because PAC-3 and THAAD are interoperable and support each other in layered defense," the source added.