Scud War, Round Two

April 1, 1992

In the year since the US-led coalition overwhelmed Iraq’s missile-equipped military forces, a second “War of the Scuds” has erupted over the effectiveness of American efforts to destroy Iraq’s ballistic missiles on the ground and in the air.

The combat this time is rhetorical, pitting analysts and partisans of all stripes in a debate that will shape the future of US tactics and defenses against the mobile ballistic missiles that are becoming the weapon of choice throughout the Third World.

With increasing force and frequency, critics have challenged the Pentagon’s claims that the innovative air campaign that relied on US Air Force systems scored heavily against mobile Scuds before they were fired against allied targets. Naval affairs analyst Norman Friedman, author of Desert Victory and a regular contributor to the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings, is leading the challenge to the air-to-ground offensive, calling the effort “a miserable and telling disaster.”

Critics also question the effectiveness of the Army’s Patriot system, which repeatedly unleashed $600,000 missiles into the skies over Israel and Saudi Arabia to intercept inbound Scuds. Theodore A. Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has led postwar revisionism with his detailed contentions that the surface-to-air portion of the anti-Scud effort was “a nearly total failure.”

Both the Air Force and the Patriot have their staunch defenders, however. The difficulties of combating the Scud threat during Operation Desert Storm are being taken to heart throughout the armed services, propelling new efforts to deal with a persistent, elusive menace that will only increase on the battle-fields of the future.

Official reports show that Iraqi military forces mounted eighty-six Scud strikes at targets in Saudi Arabia or in Israel. The aging, thirty-seven- foot-long, 14,000-pound missile initially packed a 1,000-pound, high-explosive warhead before it was modified with longer fuel sections and lighter warheads for greater range. These variants included the 400-mile Al Hussein, with a 550-pound warhead, and the 500-mile Al Abbas, with a 275-pound warhead.

The potential lethality of every Scud missile was underscored in the final days of the forty-three-day war when one of the weapons, exploiting what the Army later called “an inexact computer software calculation,” slipped past the net of a Patriot battery and slammed into a US barracks near Dhahran. The Scud demolished the rear-echelon building, killing twenty-eight Americans and wounding ninety-eight others.

Still, the Scud was far less potent as a military weapon than as a tool of political manipulation. Saddam used his Scuds to strike terror into the heart of far richer, better-armed nations-and, very nearly, to bring Israel into the war and thereby undermine the thirty-three-nation coalition.

Potent Political Punch

The Scud attacks carried immense political punch, taking allied commanders by surprise. Only at the last minute had Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the coalition’s supreme military leader, broken open cargo space aboard C-5 and C-141 airlifters to send additional Patriots to Saudi Arabia to beef up defenses. When the first Scuds hit, General Schwarzkopf called them “militarily insignificant.”

Yet constant media coverage of Scuds striking cities jolted public confidence, particularly amid fears that the Scuds might carry chemicals. “Now that we are into it,” said Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the early days of the war, “we are finding that [the Scud campaign is] taking more of an effort on our part than we had anticipated.”

Some analysts are highly critical of the Scud-busting operation, claiming it not only occupied unexpectedly large amounts of military resources, as General Powell conceded, but also produced fewer results than had been implied by officials. Mr. Friedman is one of the foremost critics, and his critique is sweeping. “Allowed to roam quite freely over a flat Iraqi landscape,” he maintains, “the [Air Force] could not find a handful of mobile missile launchers even though the launchers were not masked in any way.”

What really happened? Commanders had given priority to crushing the Iraqi Air Force of 750 combat aircraft and disabling its twenty-four main operating fields and thirty dispersal fields. Even before that phase of the war ended, leaders had to take steps to shift the pattern of attacks to destroy mobile launchers.

Prewar US intelligence had no firm fix on how many missiles Iraq possessed. Estimates ranged from 400 to 1,000. The weapons could be fired from dozens of fixed, surveyed sites, from up to fifty Soviet-made missile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) and dozens of Iraqi-made mobile erector-launchers (MELs).

The allied campaign used virtually every system available. Bombers hammered production and storage facilities and fixed sites. Satellites detected the launches and relayed six minutes’ warning downrange. The allies designated several “Scud boxes” to help strike aircraft narrow the search for the elusive targets that would emerge from hiding, fire, and hide again, within minutes.

The campaign was “intense and ran throughout the war,” the Air Force said in a postwar white paper. By day, Scud-busting fell to many of the 144 A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes based in the theater. A-10 pilots eyeballed suspect vehicles on highways and attacked them with 30-mm depleted-uranium ammunition or Maverick antiarmor missiles. The A-10s fired 5,274 Mavericks– ninety percent of the total launched by Air Force systems–and many were aimed at suspected Scud systems. Many of the 249 F-16s in the theater were at some point diverted to bomb Scud sites.

By night, F-15E dual-role fighters equipped with Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) attack equipment routinely orbited in two-ship patrols to dive beneath clouds and strike Scuds with precision weapons.

Joint STARS Lends a Hand

On occasion, F-15Es would be directed to the Scuds by one of the two E-8A Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft in the theater. The Joint STARS aircraft had been rushed from development testing into combat to put their powerful side-looking ground surveillance radar to work.

Navy aircraft flying off three carriers in the Red Sea played a smaller Scud-hunting role, devoting an estimated ten percent of their sorties to the mission. F-14s and S-3s tracked the missiles, and then A-6E attack planes bombed them.

Also taking part were US and British commandos, who used laser designators to target Iraqi missiles for coalition aircrews. Lt. Gen. E. M. Flanagan, Jr., reported in Army Magazine that commandos operating in western Iraq found nine mobile launchers under a bridge on the Baghdad-Amman highway. Another commando mission uncovered preparations for a final, last-ditch barrage of up to twenty-nine missiles that would saturate and over-whelm the six Patriot batteries in Israel. The site was destroyed.

By war’s end, allied aircraft had flown 2,493 sorties against Scud targets, the majority of these in the first three weeks of the air war. The final tally of Scuds actually destroyed was never really known. Postwar accounts showed scores of launchers unscathed and Iraqi Scud production continuing.

Washington readily acknowledged that the effort was not perfect. The Air Force conceded difficulties with Scud-busting in a report issued last September. The mission “posed one of the air campaign’s most serious challenges,” said the report. “Although air attacks dramatically reduced the frequency of Scud launches, the mobile missiles proved particularly difficult to detect and were never fully sup-pressed.”

“We thought from the beginning that we would have to attack Scuds ,” said Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force Chief of Staff. “What surprised us was [that] we put about three times the effort that we thought we would on this job.”

William J. Perry, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering during the Carter Administration and now codirector of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, concluded that, in general, the armed forces had done a satisfactory job, given the difficulty of the task. He added, however, that the US “could have done better” against the missiles had the military authorities “anticipated the difficulty and been better prepared.”

The number of missile launches dropped steadily from an average of five per day in the first ten days of the war to one per day for the last thirty-three days. In the end, officials used this reduced rate of launches as the yardstick of success and made no claims that the US had eliminated the Scud threat. “I don’t think you can put a hard percentage on the amount of his [Scud] capability that’s been destroyed,” admitted Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. “It’s a nebulous kind of thing.”

Forced to Move Out

It is clear that, at a minimum, the unrelenting air war forced Iraq to move Scud operations away from the surveyed launch areas within range of Riyadh and Tel Aviv and launch from less satisfactory points. This reduced the Scuds’ chances of actually hitting their targets. The harassing air operations also cut down the number of Scud launches.

On eighty-six occasions, however, Iraq successfully launched Scuds: forty times against targets in Israel and forty-six times against targets in Saudi Arabia. It was then that the surface-to-air portion of the Scud war came into play. Fifty-three of these Scuds came within Patriot “coverage” areas in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rest fell beyond Patriot range or harmlessly into empty desert or the sea.

Neither the Army nor Raytheon Corp., the manufacturer of the Patriot, would detail the Patriot’s performance on an attack-by-attack basis. Official statements, however, disclose that US forces fired a total of 158 Patriots, including one that was misfired at an allied aircraft returning to Turkey (it missed). According to Army figures, Patriots “successfully engaged” more than eighty percent of the Saudi Arabia-bound Scuds within its coverage range. The Army says that Patriots succeeded more than fifty percent of the time against Scuds plummeting toward Israel.

The first attack on Saudi Arabia, however, revealed a complication that dogged the Patriot throughout the war. High in space, a US satellite detected five missile launches, but, by the time the Scuds reentered the atmosphere six minutes later at a speed of 4,000 miles per hour, the five missiles had broken into fourteen missile parts, including five warheads. The Patriot, an anti-aircraft system that had undergone software modifications to become an antimissile defense system, fired twenty-eight of its interceptor missile two for each incoming Scud object. It was an astonishing show of force, but it cost $16.8 million.

What is believed to be the first missile-to-missile “interception” in the history of combat took place 17,000 feet over Dhahran at 4:45 a.m. on January 17. A 200-pound Patriot proximity-fuze warhead showered its target with shrapnel, rendering it harmless. Israel, which absorbed four days of Iraqi Scud attacks without defenses, asked Washington to deploy US-manned Patriot batteries to join a pair of Israeli batteries that were manned by troops rushed back from training at Fort Bliss, Tex. Within twenty-eight hours, four US batteries with thirty-two Patriots were flown to Israel and set up.

Many Israelis viewed the Patriots as a source of absolute protection against attacks such as the ones in the first four days of the war, which wounded 115 and damaged 2,698 dwellings.

Little-understood at the time, however, was the Patriot’s design as a defender of small military sites-so-called “point” targets–and not of vast, populated “area” targets. By that standard, said Maj. Pete Keating, an Army spokesman, the Patriot met its requirement and thus “succeeded” if it destroyed any incoming warhead, “dudded” its mechanisms, knocked it off course, or caused a partial burn of explosives.

Israel’s Higher Standard

For Israelis, however, the standard of success was quite different–destruction of warheads and fragments from missiles–and they contend that the Patriot didn’t hack it. The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv calculated that eleven Scuds engaged by Patriots caused more destruction than the thirteen Scuds that hit Israel before the Patriots arrived.

The postwar clamor over the Patriot kept Israel’s wartime sacrifice in the spotlight as the nation sought support from Washington for its Arrow antimissile program. The debate was intensified by the entrance of Mr. Postal, the MIT physicist who had once served as a science advisor in the Pentagon. His critique was contained in a detailed, fifty-two-page analysis published by Harvard University in the professional journal International Security. Said Mr. Postal, “Our first wartime experience with tactical ballistic missile defenses resulted in what may well have been a nearly total failure to intercept quite primitive attacking missiles.”

His theme was echoed by Israeli scientists and military officers who traveled to Huntsville, Ala., for after-action meetings with US officers and officials. They said Israel’s own postwar studies concluded that Patriots had destroyed less than twenty percent of warheads bound for Israeli targets. They claimed that twelve videotaped Patriot-Scud engagements showed not a single warhead destroyed.

The claims were seized on by critics of the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Mr. Postol said that the breakup of Scuds simulated the dispersal of “decoys” that any future missile defense system would encounter. The Gulf War, he added, showed that missile defense systems could “likely be defeated” by simple decoys.

Stanford University’s Professor Perry took a more moderate stance on the issue. The former Pentagon official said that the Patriot did as well as could be expected but that better defenses of the future had to pay “serious attention” to the problem of decoys.

Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense during the Carter Administration and one of the top technical and strategic experts in the US, hailed the Patriot’s performance but cautioned that the results of the Gulf War did “nothing to contradict” his long-held belief that existing technology offers “no reasonable prospect” of protecting the entire US from “a sophisticated, large-scale nuclear attack.”

Arguing for Arrow

Others used the Patriot’s performance as ammunition to bolster the case for continued US funding of Israel’s own $2 billion Arrow. Tailored to defend densely populated areas, the Arrow was designed to intercept missiles at an altitude of twenty-four miles, four times higher than the Patriot’s engagement altitude.

“The danger is that [US] research and development activities will continue on the false assumption that Patriot had an impressive success in intercepting Scuds,” warned Reuven Pedatzur, an analyst publishing a study on the Arrow for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The postwar controversy, coupled with Israel’s wartime restraint, sped Washington’s approval of substantial funds for the next phase of Arrow. During his first postwar visit to Israel, Secretary Cheney agreed to provide seventy-two percent of $300 million budgeted for the second phase of development.

Brig. Gen. Robert A. Drolet, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Air Defense at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., said the Army was “highly satisfied” with the weapon’s performance. The Defense Department, in a postwar report, said that Patriot had performed a key war-related mission by “frustrating Saddam’s most politically visible weapon.” The US weapon “countered a sense of helplessness that civilian populations would otherwise have encountered.”

Raytheon Corp., in a twenty-eight- page, point-by-point rebuttal of Mr. Postol’s allegations, highlighted the Patriot’s technical prowess as well as its contribution to the alliance. Robert M. Stein, manager of Raytheon’s advanced air defense programs, observed that the Patriot’s performance could be “measured” by the facts that the coalition “did not falter,” Israel stayed out of the war, and “widespread loss of civilian life was not inflicted–although the potential was clearly there .”

Mr. Stein readily conceded the difficulties of building an impenetrable shield. “We as designers and manufacturers of these systems wish we knew how to achieve a 100 percent success rate under all conditions in wartime,” he said. “We do not.”

The war was hardly over before efforts were under way to improve tactics and systems to thwart mobile missiles. Officials moved to overcome gaps in real-time intelligence that impaired operations. As the Air Force white paper noted, Scud-hunting “hinged on the accuracy” of intelligence. The Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency forged ahead to bolster cooperation between intelligence agencies and attack forces.

A Promising Partnership

One promising point was the partnership between the F-15E and Joint STARS. Mr. Perry argues that, had more than two E-8s been available, Scud-busting might have been far more fruitful because the coalition could have put one of the surveillance planes on the job full-time, rather than as a sideline. The E-8 might have developed a “reasonably reliable signature of Scud activities” to enable the small force of strike aircraft to mount an effective campaign, he said.

The Pentagon also mapped immediate improvements in the Patriot to provide a fourfold increase in the area protected by a battery as well as to boost the altitude of interception by forty percent. With a second phase of follow-on upgrades by the late 1990s the Patriot may be able to defend an area twenty times larger and intercept missiles at twice the altitude.

Even so, all signs are that the second round of the War of the Scuds will last considerably longer than the first. House Government Operations Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who also chairs that panel’s Legislation and National Security Subcommittee, vowed an inquiry into the Patriot’s performance. Said he, “What I’m beginning to feel is that this wonderful system wasn’t so wonderful after all.”

The outcome of the debate is uncertain, but it is sure to have a major impact on the direction of US military tactics and systems.

Stewart M. Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, covered Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula. He has covered security affairs in the US and abroad for more than a decade. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Friendly Fire” in the December 1991 issue.