Scud War, Round Three

Oct. 1, 1992

Though Operation Desert Storm ended long ago, arguments continue to flare about the effectiveness of the US-led campaign against Iraq’s arsenal of Scud ballistic missiles. Indeed, this verbal, peacetime “War of the Scuds” has raged far longer than the forty-two-day conflict that pitted Air Force and Navy jets and the Army’s Patriot antimissile system against the Scuds.

Postwar examinations have focused on two questions: First, how effective was the Scud-busting campaign mounted chiefly by the US Air Force to destroy missiles and launchers on the ground? Second, how reliable was the Patriot antimissile system in intercepting Scuds once they began plummeting toward targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel

In the war’s immediate aftermath, Washington took the position that the counter-Scud effort was flawed but effective. The Patriot had missed targets, said the Army. The US Air Force reported that, although air attacks dramatically reduced the frequency of launches, “the mobile missiles proved particularly difficult to detect and were never fully suppressed.” Even so, the official assessment tended to be generally positive [see “Scud War, Round Two,” April 1992, p. 48].

Things seem different now. Postwar United Nations inspections of Iraqi facilities suggested that the unimpeded air offensive had less impact on the Scuds than had been expected. Reviews of computer data from attempted Patriot intercepts raised new and serious doubts about how well the modified air defense system performed. The reviews left many worrying that US forces might enter the next war with less protection against missiles than initially had been thought.

In the Defense Department’s comprehensive study of the conflict, “The Conduct of the Persian Gulf War,” Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney reflected publicly and critically on the need to develop better techniques for dealing with the threat. “Tactical ballistic missile defense worked, but imperfectly,” Secretary Cheney wrote. “Mobile missile targeting and destruction are difficult and costly. We need to do better.”

The US-led air campaign against the Scuds ran into difficulties right away. Commanders gave early priority to neutralizing Iraq’s air defense network, 750 combat aircraft, and fifty-four main operating bases and dispersal fields before shifting attention to mobile launchers four days into the campaign.

Grave Underestimation

Senior US officers now admit that they underestimated the immense political impact that could be generated by even a handful of highly inaccurate Scuds, weapons that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf described at the outset of the war as “militarily insignificant.” The liquid-fueled rockets derived from the Nazis’ buzz bombs of World War II were “not regarded initially as a threat to military forces unless they were equipped with unconventional warheads,” conceded the Pentagon study.

This study further noted that the suppression of Scud attacks became “crucial” only after the Persian Gulf conflict was well under way and it had become clear that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was attempting, with repeated missile barrages against Israel, to goad that country into joining the war. The Bush Administration mounted an all-out military, diplomatic, and intelligence-sharing offensive to persuade the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to resist the temptation to strike back. Four US-manned Patriot batteries joined two Israeli-manned batteries. These systems eventually went into action against forty-two Iraqi missiles fired at Israel.

In addition, the US committed three squadrons of combat aircraft and flew a total of 2,493 sorties against Scud targets.

The counter-Scud effort was huge, but the efficacy of this operation has been hotly disputed. Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins University, author of Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusion, stirred a furor not long ago with sensational reports of failure. Mr. Miller’s claims, excerpted in the New York Times, charged that allied air forces scored few successes. He asserted that the operation destroyed only twelve of Iraq’s twenty-eight fixed launch sites. Of the remaining sixteen, he said, fourteen sustained only “slight” damage and two were untouched. As for attacks on moving Scuds, Mr. Miller said, raids “did not destroy a single mobile launcher.” General Schwarzkopf had said that the allies had identified twenty mobiles possessed by Iraq.

The Ritter Claims

Mr. Miller’s contentions were based, at least in part, on information provided by William S. Ritter, Jr., a captain in the US Marine Corps Reserve who served as a Scud missile analyst at US Central Command headquarters in Riyadh during the war. After the Persian Gulf War, Captain Ritter moved on to serve as a US-paid ballistic missile specialist on the staff of the UN Special Commission supervising the destruction of Iraqi weapons.

In a written account sent to Air Force Magazine in mid-1992, Captain Ritter made a number of similar claims. He called US prewar estimates of the Iraqi Scud threat “inaccurate,” said the initial forty-eight-hour onslaught on identified Scud sites “failed to achieve its objectives,” and approvingly cited published reports that showed that allied special operations forces were unable to close down Scud launches from western Iraq.

“The counter-Scud campaign against Iraq–despite the considerable and oftentimes heroic efforts of the men and women involved–did not achieve its objective of effectively interdicting Scud launches,” wrote Captain Ritter. “The sooner the fact is admitted–and the shortcomings in the way our military plans to counter mobile, relocatable targets can be identified–the sooner a strategy for defeating such targets in the future can be had.”

What made such statements compelling was that the Pentagon all but agreed.

In a briefing in late June-sixteen months after the conclusion of the war–Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams had this to say: “We don’t have today a satisfactory, accurate count of how many mobile launchers we destroyed during the war, how many fixed launchers we destroyed during the war, and how many missiles were destroyed during the war.”

Mr. Williams urged analysts to come up with some yardstick other than the number of destroyed missiles. “The . . . body count on Scud missiles is not the only measure of effectiveness,” he said. “The real measure of effectiveness should be, ‘Did we interrupt, slow down, or in any way discourage the Iraqis from being able to fire their Scuds?’ ” The counter-Scud effort did, in fact, “reduce Iraq’s ability to launch missiles,” said the Pentagon spokesman, forcing enemy forces to reduce the number of launches from five per day in the first ten days of the war to an average of slightly more than one per day for the remaining thirty-three days.

The Pentagon readily admitted frustration in trying to combat an elusive weapon that could be moved five miles from a launch site in ten minutes, a capability that could require an aircraft to search a seventy-eight-square-mile area.

The Pentagon study lamented that mobile Scud launchers had proven “elusive targets.” Indeed, UN inspectors-Captain Ritter principal among them–said they could find no hard evidence that the allied air attacks had destroyed any mobile launchers. Many of the destroyed targets thought at first to be Scud launchers turned out, on examination, to be fuel trucks or similar vehicles. These UN inspectors also found that “most production equipment, components, and documents” had been safely secreted away before the war.

One published report alleged that Captain Ritter denied the validity of these claims. In lengthy discussions with Air Force Magazine, however, he reaffirmed them in their entirety.

The Pentagon’s postwar account acknowledged that, in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, the US believed that Iraq’s “overall ability to modify or produce” Scuds and missile support equipment had been “severely degraded” and Baghdad’s “overall potential” for producing liquid-propellant missiles had been “reduced.” The report noted, however, that “recent intelligence estimates confirm that actual damage to Scud production and storage facilities is less than previously thought.”

Lowballed Estimates

The Defense Department report said that, in the prewar period, allied target planners believed Iraq had 600 missiles, twenty-eight fixed launchers, and thirty-six mobile launchers. These “working estimates . . . proved to be too low.”

As for the missiles, signs suggest that Iraq may have emerged from the war with a sizable working arsenal at its disposal. Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last spring that Pentagon analysts believed Iraq retained a residual arsenal of at least 250 Scud missiles. The UN’s inspectors found evidence of the continued existence of at least 137 missiles at war’s end and planned to keep looking for more.

Timothy Trevan, a spokesman for the UN Special Commission, said UN inspectors supervised destruction of sixty-four Scuds and had been “presented with evidence” of eighty-nine other missiles destroyed during the war.

“Given the degree of uncertainty about the number of missiles, we can’t stop looking,” said Mr. Trevan. “We don’t know if undeclared missiles are out there, but we have to work on the assumption that they are.”

Postwar reviews also revised downward the estimate of the Patriot’s success against the thirty-seven-foot-long, seven-ton ballistic missiles.

Even while the war was going on, Israeli officials questioned the effectiveness of the modified antimissile system as Scuds slipped through Patriot defenses to slam into Israeli neighborhoods. Later, technical specialists such as Theodore A. Postol, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, challenged the Patriot’s record.

A frequently bitter debate has ebbed and flowed for more than a year, pitting critics of the Patriot in the US and Israel against the missile’s manufacturer, Raytheon Corp., and the US Army. The Army defended the performance of the 1970s-vintage antiaircraft system, which had been given an antimissile capability shortly before the Persian Gulf War. American forces deploying to Saudi Arabia in August 1990 packed the Army’s entire inventory of improved antimissile warheads–two.

Problems persisted in the system, which was seeing combat for the first time. Computer software was continuously revised to refine “engagement parameters” to enable the Patriots’ 200-pound proximity warheads to explode near Scuds as they raced toward targets on a six-minute flight that reached altitudes of sixty-two miles and speeds of 4,500 miles per hour.

The Scud that destroyed a US barracks near the end of the war exploited “an inexact computer software calculation,” aggravated by four days of continuous operation, to slip through without a Patriot being fired. Truck-mounted Patriot batteries had been designed for a fast-moving European conflict where computers were expected to be moved and shut down for maintenance every fourteen hours.

Revising the Numbers

Last April, the Army formally revised its year-old public assessment of Patriot performance, shifting its measurement of success downward by ten percent. Army officials told the House Government Operations Committee that a “reevaluation” found that Patriot systems destroyed, damaged, or knocked off course more than seventy percent of the Scuds that came within range in Saudi Arabia and more than forty percent of those that came within range in Israel.

The new figures reflected “minor changes” that were “not statistically significant,” testified Army Maj. Gen. Jay M. Garner, assistant chief of staff for Operations, Plans, and Force Development. “War is a bottom-line business,” General Garner told the committee’s panel on legislation and national security. “The bottom line on Desert Storm is that the United States and its allies won.”

However, the testimony failed to lay the issue to rest, partly because the Army declined to make public an engagement-by-engagement account of the Patriot’s performance. Officials said that disclosing such details would reveal the Patriot’s strengths and weaknesses to prospective enemies.

Outside experts, including some who had access to the classified data, disputed the Army’s findings. Steve Hildreth, a defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service who helped carry out a congressional investigation, said in April that he could find only “one warhead kill” when he used the Army’s methodology for its initial study. However, Mr. Hildreth did not conduct an independent assessment of Patriot operations.

Reuven Pedatzur, who prepared a study on the US-Israeli Arrow antiballistic missile system for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, claimed that Israeli authorities could find “no authenticated proof” that any of the forty-two Iraqi Scuds fired at Israel had been “hit or destroyed” by Patriots.

Buried Truth

The truth remained buried in secret figures on each engagement and widely differing interpretations of what constituted a “successful engagement.”

What was known was that 158 Patriots were fired at a cost of $640,000 each, including one misfire at an allied aircraft returning to Incirlik AB, Turkey, without casualties.

Of the eighty-eight Scuds launched toward Israel or Saudi Arabia by Iraq, fifty-three came within “coverage” areas defended by Patriot batteries. The remaining thirty-five Iraqi missiles fell into the desert or sea or were not fired upon because they were beyond Patriot range.

According to Army officials, the Patriot systems attacked fifty-one incoming Scuds, missed one, and failed to fire against the Scud that destroyed the US barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. About fifty-five percent of the Patriots were fired at Scud warheads, thirty percent at “Scud debris,” and fifteen percent at “false targets.”

Brig. Gen. Robert A. Drolet, the Program Executive Officer for Air Defense at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, Ala., declined to disclose in congressional testimony the exact number of confirmed Patriot “warhead kills.” However, he did provide figures showing that the Army believed Patriots destroyed or knocked off course only about two dozen Scuds.

When one combines everything from “high confidence” kills to “low confidence” kills, said the Army, the Patriot can be said to have destroyed seven out of every ten Scuds “engaged” over Saudi Arabia and four out of every ten Iraqi missiles “engaged” by Patriots over Israel. The Army considered a Scud “successfully engaged” if the Patriot destroyed or damaged the warhead, caused a partial burn of warhead, or knocked the Scud body off course.

The critics, as well as Israelis who fired Patriots, considered the Patriot successful only when it destroyed a Scud warhead in midflight without allowing frequently deadly debris to fall to earth.

Mr. Hildreth, who briefed Congress in April, said a third and final Army presentation on Patriots’ performance to select officials in midsummer made Army claims of Patriot performance “much clearer.” Even so, Mr. Hildreth said his assessment did not represent an independent conclusion on his part.

The Pentagon’s postwar report toned down early claims of success, saying only that the Army’s Patriot “not only helped defeat the psychological threat of Iraq’s Scuds, instilling a feeling of confidence in people in the targeted areas, but also almost certainly reduced civilian casualties.”

As the second anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm approached, officials at the Pentagon were still poring over the results of the anti-Scud campaign and Patriot operations to determine what went right and what went wrong. It may not be until the next war that the success of revised antimissile operations can be properly assessed.

Stewart M. Powell, the White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered security affairs in Washington, D. C., and overseas for more than a decade. He reported on Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from the first deployments in August 1990 through the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Scud War, Round Two,” in the April 1992 issue.