WASHINGTON—Two friendly fire incidents under investigation by U.S. military officials have renewed concern over the reliability of the Patriot battlefield missile defense system that is supposed to shield advancing coalition forces from Iraqi missiles.
"Does the Patriot work? The short answer is, we don't know," said John Pike, a defense technology expert at GlobalSecurity.Org, an Alexandria, Va.-based defense research group.
On Sunday, a Patriot protecting the airfield at Ali al Salem in northern Kuwait from incoming Iraqi missiles blew apart a British Tornado fighter-bomber, killing its two-man crew. On Monday, an F-16 about 30 miles south of An Najaf destroyed the Patriot's radar system after it locked onto the American fighter.
Lt. Mark Kitchens, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Doha, Qatar, said Monday's strike was under investigation "to identify procedural changes to ensure the safety of our air crews and Patriot crews in combat operations."
He said the two incidents were "separate and distinct."
But weapons experts worry that U.S. troops could be at risk if they rely too heavily on an anti-missile system that clearly still has some bugs. They point out that the Army rushed 50 new Patriot missiles into service despite a checkered test record.
Whether the Patriot could shoot down the longer-range Scud, possibly containing a biological or chemical warhead, is even harder to know. It is much harder to hit than the slower and shorter-range missiles Iraq has fired thus far.
The Patriot, originally designed to shoot down aircraft and later modified to target missiles, proved a big flop in the first Gulf War. The Patriot would either miss Iraqi Scuds or only knock them a bit off target, said Victoria Samson, researcher for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington military analysis group that often challenges the Pentagon.
The U.S. Army says that the Patriot had a 70 percent success rate against Scuds fired at Saudi Arabia and a 40 percent success rate against Scuds fired at Israel. One Scud struck a U.S. Army barracks near Dhahran, killing 28 soldiers and injuring 100 others who were told not to take cover because the Patriot would protect them.
A report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Patriot's success rate might have been no better than 9 percent. A congressional report concluded that Patriots intercepted between zero and four of the estimated 45 Scuds fired by Iraq. In all, there were 158 Patriots fired during the first Gulf War.
Since then, the U.S. military has spent $3 billion to improve the Patriot. U.S. and Kuwaiti forces are using both the $750,000-per-missile PAC-2 Patriot, which explodes near its target and the newer $3 million PAC-3 which strikes its target directly. The new version is faster, lighter and more accurate, military officials say.
So far in this conflict, the Patriot has brought down eight of 12 Iraqi short-range missiles fired at coalition forces, U.S. military officials say. Four Iraqi missiles were not targeted. Two landed in the water and the third in empty desert. The fourth exploded shortly after launch.
"All of the threatening launches have been intercepted by Patriot missiles," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at a U.S. Central Command briefing in Doha on Friday.
"We won't know for sure if these figures are accurate until we get the analysis and that's not going to happen ... until the hostilities end," Samson said.
Central Command statistics already have drawn some skepticism.
"It will be weeks or months before we're able to verify the battlefield claims," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who led the congressional investigation into the Patriot's performance in the first Gulf War.
For now, one problem is that military officials won't say how many Patriots had to be fired to down each Iraqi missile, citing "operational considerations." Samson suspects multiple Patriots are launched against each Iraqi missile.
"The only way to believe what they are saying is if they provide real data to show what they did," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Theodore Postol, a ballistic missile defense expert and a sharp critic of the Patriot.
Still unclear is how well the Patriot can hit Scuds. In the first Gulf War, Scuds spiraled in flight, making them difficult to track and intercept, Sampson said.
So far in this conflict, the Patriot has only taken on the al Samoud missile and the Ababil-100 that are easier to target. "They travel more slowly by a factor of two," said Postol. "They follow very predictable trajectories."
The new Patriot has never been tested against a Scud. And while it performed well in developmental testing, it "bombed" in operational testing last year, Samson said.
"Sometimes the missiles failed to launch. Other times the computer system failed to transmit target information in time, and in still others a shaky interception did not result in the destruction of the target missile," she said.
Perhaps most troubling, when testing the PAC-3, the Patriot sometimes would get an electrical charge that caused the system to malfunction, Sampson said.
The view from the ground where Patriot missiles guard Kuwait is much different.
One service member at Camp Doha, rattled by the threat of Iraqi missiles, said he feels safer. "Everyone's shaken up when we hear the Patriots go off. We feel relatively safe here because of the Patriots."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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