Once the rockets are up
Who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department
Says Wernher Van Braun.
“Wernher van Braun” by Tom Lehrer
This time around it was going to be different. This time around the Patriot missile was going to live up to all the hype, unlike in the first installment of the Gulf War when the missiles nearly struck out against Iraqi Scuds, the softballs of the ballistic missile world.
There was a lot riding on the Patriot missile system’s success. Not just the safety of American and British troops and journalists or Kuwaitis and Israelis, who fear they might have been targets of Iraqi Scud missiles (assuming the regime had any left.) The new and improved Patriot missile also was going to demonstrate the efficacy of the Bush administration’s mad rush to deploy a revamped Ballistic Missile Defense System, the Star Wars of Reagan’s fantasy. Billions in defense contracts were riding on the backs of those missile batteries.
As in the first Gulf War, the initial reports on the new Patriots were breathlessly glowing. As missile sirens went off in Kuwait, embedded reporters ritually donned their chemical gas masks, descended into bunkers, then emerged minutes later to announce that they’d been saved by the mighty Patriot missile.
The mobile missile batteries supposedly knocked down several Iraqi Scuds headed toward US Army positions and Kuwait City. Later, it turned out that the missiles weren’t Scuds and they may have been brought down in the Kuwait desert on their own volition not by US missiles.
Then came the really bad news. On March 24, a Patriot missile battery near the Kuwait border locked onto a British Royal Air Force Tornado G-4 jet that was returning from a raid on Basra. Four Patriot missiles were fired and one hit the jet, destroying the plane and killing two British pilots.
Two days later, the radar for another Patriot missile battery locked on to a US F-16. The pilot of fighter jet located the radar dish and destroyed it.
Then on April 2 an U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet was shot down by another Patriot missile, killing the pilot.
“They’re looking into a software problem,” said Navy Lt. Commander Charles Owens. “They’re going to check everything out. When they do find a fault, they’ll put it out to the rest of the world.”
But Pentagon watchers aren’t holding their breath. Based on past experience, it’s more likely that Pentagon brass will attempt to obscure the cause rather than reveal a fatal design flaw in a revered centerpiece in the Army’s new arsenal of smart weapons.
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that the Pentagon and the Patriot’s contractors (Raytheon and Lockheed) have known for nearly a decade that the missile has difficulties discriminating incoming missiles from friendly aircraft.
The target discrimination problem was first revealed during testing at Nellis Air Force Base in 1993. During that test an U.S. aircraft simulating a return home from a mission was flying in a corridor reserved for friendly aircraft but still would have been “shot down” by the Patriot were it a combat situation.
Over the years, billions had been poured into the program with little sign of improvement in this fundamental and lethal defect. Subsequent exercises and tests have revealed that the Patriot radar discrimination problems were not fixed, according to Philip Coyle, former Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, the Pentagon’s independent testing office. Coyle says the problems were identified in so-called Joint Air Defense Operations/Joint Engagement Zones exercises during the mid-1990s.
Despite this, the Pentagon pushed to increase production of the Patriot III in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. In November of 2002, Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told Congress that the Army needed to dramatically step up production of the new Patriots, not only for use in Iraq but also “to counter threats in North Korea, Iran and Libya.”
“My recommendation is to buy PAC-3s as fast as we are able to buy them,” Kadish said. When asked about problems with the system, Kadish brushed them off, saying they merely “minor” and “annoying.” Congress, ever anxious to peddle Pentagon pork, consented, boosting Patriot missile production by more than 10 percent.
As usual with the Pentagon, cost is no object. But the Patriot is very expensive system and it’s getting costlier all the time. Raytheon and Lockheed originally promised to deliver the new Patriot system for $3.7 billion dollars. Now the cost has soared to $7.8 billion. Each Patriot missile unit costs about $170 million. In the first Gulf War, an average of four missiles were launched against a single incoming Scud.
The old PAC-2 is seriously flaw. But the new version of the Patriot has struggled through field testing, although this didn’t deter the Pentagon’s rush to increase production. Through the summer of 2002, the new Patriot missile had failed more than half of its field tests.
From the beginning there were signs of serious glitches in the software program that guides the missile. The program was two years behind schedule and the costs soared from $557 million to $1.1 billion for the software alone. And its still never worked right. By 2001, the cost overruns for the system had topped $10 million a month.
You simply can’t trust the Pentagon to be honest about the performance of its big ticket items. During the first Gulf War, the generals crowed about the success of the Patriot, saying that it hit more than 80 percent of its targets. In fact, the missile scarcely hit any incoming missiles, as was revealed in a General Accounting Office investigation. The GAO audit concluded that the Patriot missiles hit less than 9 percent of the Iraqi Scud missiles that were launched during the first Gulf conflict.
“The results of these studies are disturbing,” said Theodore Postol, the MIT scientist who studied the Patriot missile’s kill rate in the first Gulf War. “They suggest that the Patriot’s intercept rate during the Gulf War was very low. The evidence from these preliminary studies indicates that the Patriot’s intercept rate could be much lower than 10 percent, perhaps even zero.” The Pentagon went after Postol with a vengeance, accusing him of using classified documents for his conclusions on the ineptitude of the Patriot missile system.
What’s more disturbing is that the Pentagon knew all this and covered it up. So did the Patriot’s prime contractor, Raytheon. In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, the US Army issued two assessments on the Patriot missile system’s performance: one on Patriot Scud kills in Israel and another in Saudi Arabia. Initially, the Pentagon claimed a success rate of 80 percent in Saudi Arabia and 50 percent in Israel. A few months later, the Pentagon scaled those back to 70 percent and 40 percent. A year later, the Pentagon admitted that had a high degree of confidence in only “ten percent” of the kills.
Why the slow comedown? American wars have served as live fire arms shows. The hype on the Patriot, which the US media eagerly gobbled up, was designed to help market the missile system to other nations. In the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, more than a dozen nations placed orders for Patriot missile systems. The contracts were signed before the purchasers (including Turkey, South Korea, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) learned of the Patriot’s weak batting average.
There were lethal consequences to the Patriot’s failures during the first Gulf War, which the Pentagon glossed over. On February 25, 1991, a Patriot missile battery in Dharan, Saudi Arabia missed an incoming Iraqi Scud. The Scud hit an Army barrack housing US soldiers. The rocket attack killed 28 people and injured more than 100 others.
The Patriot missile is based on 1970s technology and was originally designed for use as an anti-aircraft weapon, a role it reverted to with tragic consequences in the latest Gulf War. In the 1980s, the Patriot was modified to serve as anti-ballistic missile system for use against short-range rocket attacks.
“The Pentagon has known for a decade that the Patriot cannot distinguish its targets from our own aircraft,” says Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Pentagon watchdog group. “It is an outrage that they have not fixed this fundamental flaw, yet continue to buy it and sell it to our allies, and have the gall to promote this weapon in both Gulf Wars as a star when they’ve known it is a dud.”