Hold Your Applause: the Patriot Missile Defense System’s Wartime Record Reveals a Complicated Mosaic of Innovations and Flaws
(Source: Center for Defense Information; undated)
According to some proponents of missile defense, the Patriot missile defense system may have saved hundreds of lives on the ground during the second Gulf War. According to the U.S. Army Test & Evaluation Command, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, and undoubtedly the families of the pilots lost in friendly fire incidents, the Patriot had not developed enough to warrant full-rate production. While analysis of the missile defense system’s performance is on-going, we do know several things for sure: Iraqi missiles were not responsible for any deaths during this Gulf War. The Patriot missile defense system was involved in three friendly fire incidents resulting in the deaths of one American and two British pilots. And any assessment of the Patriot will be done keeping in mind the exaggerated and misleading hype the system received during the first Gulf War.

Reading through media accounts, there are reports of at least 16 Iraqi missiles having been launched at coalition forces and Kuwait in March and April 2003. That number has been continually revised upward as time passes. The latest number of total Iraqi missiles launched is 20. This confusion over the totals seems unusual, as a missile attack would be something that would be hard to ignore. However, it may be because many Iraqi missiles were not launched at anything in particular and landed away from populated areas. The Iraqis likely were focused more on just getting the missiles launched, with little thought to accuracy. That would explain why so many ­ six by reading through press accounts, up to nine by official accounts ­ Iraqi missiles were deemed “unengageable,” or not posing enough of a threat to merit a Patriot counter-attack.

Another topic of which the official military accounts have been studiously silent is how many Patriots were fired in total. Press accounts, based on reliable sources, state that 20 PAC-2s were launched, the majority of which probably were the Guided Enhanced Munition (GEM) and GEM-Plus (GEM+) variants. The only hard number given thus far for Patriots fired was by Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Missile Defense Agency, while testifying to the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee on April 9. He stated that 4 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3)s were launched during the entire conflict. Looking at daily events, at least 20 Patriots in total were launched, assuming that at least two Patriots were launched against every Iraqi ballistic missile but only one Patriot per aircraft down. Seeing as how the U.S. doctrine for the Patriot entails a “ripple fire” effect, where more than one Patriot is launched at every target to increase the missiles’ potential for lethality, this is not an unrealistic number.

The reason why the total number of Patriots launched even matters is because it is a crucial part of assessing how effective the Patriots actually were. From press accounts, there are reports of 10 Iraqi missiles engaged by Patriots: six by U.S. Patriot batteries and four by Kuwaiti Patriot batteries. This differs from U.S. Army officials’ total of nine (six by the United States; three by Kuwait). U.S. military officials further break down the engagements by noting that two were done by PAC-3s, 6 by PAC-2/GEMs, and one by a PAC-2/GEM+. While their total number is different from what can be determined by reading daily news accounts, it is useful in analyzing general patterns in Patriot usage.

First, no matter how effective the Patriot is proven to be in the intercepts of this war, it has to be emphasized that it was targeting short-range ballistic missiles: Ababil-100s and al-Samoud-2s. Iraq never launched any of the missiles which were so vexingly difficult for the Patriot to intercept during the first Gulf War ­ the Scud. Iraq’s version of the Scud is an extended variant with a range of around 400 miles and therefore is very rickety. During the first Gulf War, they were so poorly maintained that they often fell apart in flight and were exceedingly difficult to track. If Iraq even has any Scuds left, they have been hidden away in less than optimal conditions and undoubtedly would be even more challenging to intercept. Iraq’s Ababil-100s and al-Samoud-2s, on the other hand, have a shorter range of maybe 100 miles, so they are slower and relatively easier to intercept than the Scuds would have been.

Another striking aspect of the Patriots used in Iraq is that nearly all of the engagements were done by PAC-2/GEMs or PAC-2/GEM+s. These are upgraded versions of the Patriot that was used in the first Gulf War but still incorporate the blast-fragmentation warhead popular from the early days of theater missile defense design. Contrast this against the PAC-3’s track record of two acknowledged engagements against Iraqi ballistic missiles. The PAC-3 utilizes hit-to-kill technology where the warhead strives to directly intercept the enemy missile. Hit-to-kill, or “hitting a bullet with a bullet” as it has been vernacularly referred to, is what all the latest missile defense research and development has been working toward. The ground-based midcourse and the sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense systems that are to begin deployment next year both use this kind of technology. Rightly or wrongly, the Patriots in Iraq were used by both sides of the aisle to prove or disprove whether hit-to-kill specifically and missile defense in general could work. If it turns out that the PAC-3 really was involved in such a small fraction of the successful engagements, hit-to-kill advocates have only been slightly vindicated. Of course, this may be because there was a limited number of PAC-3s in the U.S. arsenal ­ around 50 when hostilities started ­ or because the Iraqi missiles being targeted did not merit the PAC-3 interceptor. The Army would do well to clear up this confusion.

Another thing Western media has not highlighted is the heavy involvement of the Kuwaiti Patriot batteries in the reported engagements. Whether one uses the CENTOM total of three engagements or inferring from daily news stories that there were four, the Kuwaiti batteries represent a significant percentage of the Patriots’ successes. The PAC-3 is deployed solely to U.S. Patriot batteries, which means that the Kuwaitis were limited to using the PAC-2/GEMs or PAC-2/GEM+s. Also, the Kuwaiti Patriot batteries likely were not manned by Americans.

Finally, all three friendly fire incidents involved U.S. Patriot batteries rather than those of Kuwait.

The first friendly fire incident occurred on Sunday, March 23. A British RAF Tornado GR-4 was returning from a mission in Iraq when a PAC-2 shot it down and killed both pilots on-board. Shortly after this blue-on-blue tragedy took place, the British Royal Air Force detachment commander, Group Capt. Simon Dobb, announced, The Americans have made a rapid and prudent re-evaluation of Patriot rules of engagement. I can categorically assure my crews that there is no danger of inadvertent engagement."

He spoke too soon, as the second friendly fire incident occurred just one day later. A U.S. Air Force F-16CJ flying a suppression of enemy air defense mission thought it was being targeted by a forward-deployed Patriot radar and consequently launched a high-speed anti-radiation missile against it. The Patriot’s radar was damaged slightly. There was no human cost as the system was operating on automatic, due to the heavy mortar fire which forced the Patriot operators to withdraw. After this second incident, the Air Force decided to revamp its rules of engagement and announced that its pilots were to double-check before launching missiles against what appeared to be enemy air defense systems. U.S. Air Force Secretary James Roche also portrayed the March 24 incident as merely a lack of familiarity between the Patriot and air crews, explaining that he didn't "think we've operated in the vicinity of Patriot batteries before." That hypothesis is somewhat questionable, as Patriot crews train with air support, but perhaps it may be appropriate for the early stages of the war. By April 2, all communication problems should have been worked out ­ but they were not. On that date, a U.S. Navy F/A-18C was shot down by a PAC-3, killing the pilot.

Investigations for all three friendly fire incidents are on-going, but speculation as to the causes has run rampant. One of the first explanations given was that it was pilot error, either by turning off the identification friend or foe (IFF) transponder beacon that all aircraft are required to use or by veering out of designated flight paths. To begin, human error possibly could explain one incident, or maybe two incidents, but when the same issue crops up with three very different military branches, that explanation begins to lose credibility. Second, the IFF beacons very well may not have worked quite as they should have - but since the Iraqi Air Force was not flying, the first assumption of any aircraft spotted by the Patriot should have been that it was friendly. And while there may have been specified corridors the blue aircraft should have been following, the Patriot’s radar swept such wide paths in the sky that it would be virtually impossible to avoid. Additionally, during development tests in the mid-1990s, the Patriot targeted friendly aircraft even when they remained where they were supposed to be. That problem may have been worked through and fixed in later tests, but it is a possibility which should not be discounted by investigators.

What seems to be gaining popularity as an explanation is that, due to the extremely cluttered environment the Patriots were operating in and the resulting electronic interference that may have been generated by the radars operating in close proximity, the radar system simply failed to recognize the aircraft as aircraft. Instead, it is plausible that the blue aircraft were deemed by the Patriot’s radar to be missiles. While this theory explains why aircraft were being targeted at all, it raises a whole slew of more disturbing questions. Part of the $3 billion spent on upgrading the Patriot was used to make its radar much more discriminatory. It is supposed to be able to handle a much more cluttered air picture with objects of a much smaller radar cross section than the earlier radar could have done. Why didn’t the Patriot’s radar recognize the IFF beacons on the blue aircraft? Even if the beacons weren’t working perfectly, the aircraft were flying in formation with others ­ shouldn’t that have let Patriot operators know that those weren’t missiles they were targeting? And how could this more discriminatory radar system mistake an aircraft for a missile? They have different radar cross sections, shapes, and speeds. If indeed this proves to be the cause of the friendly fire incidents, unless the U.S. military takes a hard look at why the Patriot’s radar made these errors, the Pentagon will be limited to deploying the Patriot missile defense system only to theaters where there will not be U.S. aircraft. That is to say, nowhere.

Finally, any commentary on the Patriot missile defense system’s performance in Iraq should include how it handled cruise missiles. To be blunt, it didn’t. The only two missiles which got through the Patriot’s radar unnoticed were apparently CSSC-3 Seersucker cruise missiles. One landed outside Camp Commando in Kuwait in the morning of March 20; the other landed just off-shore Kuwait City’s shopping mall on March 29. In both cases, there was minimal damage and only two minor injuries reported. What is notable is that these missiles, by flying low to the ground, seemingly were able to avoid setting off the Patriot’s radar. Cruise missile proliferation, while not often discussed, is becoming an increasingly dangerous problem. The Patriot will undoubtedly be deployed in the future against countries which have cruise missiles; that the Patriot failed to even note the missiles is discouraging. Also, given the wild popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. military circles, it makes sense that other governments will start investigating using them. This could pose a threat if the Patriot radar is going to continue entirely missing threats low to the ground.

The Patriot missile defense system has proven it is lethal against aircraft. It has proven that it is not lethal against cruise missiles. What remains to be determined is how exactly lethal it is against ballistic missiles. In order to head off accusations of misleading the public about the Patriot’s acumen, which was the response following the U.S. military’s triumphant (and later proven to faulty) proclamations during the first Gulf War, an objective and thorough investigation must be made of the Patriot’s usage during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The results of this scrutiny should be made available, as much as possible, to the public so that it may be independently confirmed. Only by doing so can whatever problems that bedeviled the Patriot this past spring be rooted out, allowing the system to become a reliable part of U.S. defense operations. (ends)

Click here for CDI’s daily breakdown of Patriot activity in Iraq (on the CDI website; HTML format)


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