With live TV of convoy ambushes and troops slogging toward Baghdad, Operation Iraqi Freedom hardly resembles the speedy ground campaign of the 1991 Gulf War. But one thing is eerily familiar: reports of deadeye Patriot rockets knocking Iraq's ballistic missiles from the sky.
The first time around, it seemed a triumph of high-tech warfare and an encouraging sign for a possible national defense against the bigger, faster intercontinental missiles that rogue nations might develop. At least it did until the Patriot's successes turned out to be wildly overstated. This time, U.S. commanders hope the first impressions will hold up.
Technology has marched on, and a growing number of Patriots now guarding cities and bases share little but a name with their predecessors. They have also had slower, easier targets than they did in the first Gulf Warnot, contrary to some news reports, 400-mile-range Scuds but smaller tactical missiles with a range of 100 miles or so. Critics say it is too early to be sure, but U.S. officials in Kuwait say Patriot interceptors destroyed the first seven missiles the Iraqis lofted toward populated or militarily important areas. An additional three missiles were headed for nothing important and were left alone, the officials said.
The news is not all good. The Patriots should easily distinguish friendly aircraft from enemy rockets, but early in the campaign one struck down a British Tornado fighter-bomber returning to Kuwait from Iraq, killing the two-man crew. The next day, a Patriot battery's radar locked on a U.S. F-16. Its pilot may have saved his life by firing his own missile, knocking out the Patriot radar but hurting none of its crew.
Last time around, when al-Hussein Scuds fell by the dozens on Saudi Arabia and Israel, officials initially claimed that Patriots destroyed more than 90 percent of their targets. Detailed analysis later indicated they may have gotten none. The impression of success stemmed in part from brilliant blasts in the sky as the Patriots exploded, followed by a failure of the Scud warheads to hit home. But they might have missed anyway. "Most of the Scuds were just duds, badly made and badly aimed," says Theodore Postol, an MIT physics professor behind one of the most damning critiques of earlier Patriots.
The newest versions, called the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 or PAC-3, share space in this war's Patriot batteries with older models, and both the new and older missiles may have scored hits. The PAC-3, still in short supply, represents a multi-billion investment over the last ten years. Earlier Patriots, made by the Raytheon Corp., were designed to fly within a few feet of a target and explode in a cloud of shrapnel. With vastly improved guidance from both the ground and its built-in radar, The PAC-3 simply smashes its quarry by ramming it at several thousand miles an hour. Last-moment course corrections come via 180 tiny sideways-mounted rockets that fire almost explosively from near the new Patriot's nose. The PAC-3 is also much thinner than its predecessors, allowing 16 to fit into a single launcher, compared with four of the old models.
The new version's development tests have been "the most successful in air defense missile history," boasts Craig Vanbebber, spokesman for Lockheed-Martin, which makes the PAC-3 in Camden, Ark. Not so fast, says analyst Victoria Samson of the gadfly Center for Defense Information in Washington DC. She concedes that the PAC-3 was successful in 10 of its first 11 tests, but in later, more realistic trials it got only two of seven targets. "To be blunt, the PAC-3 bombed," she says.
But even Postol, one of the fiercest critics of the Defense Department's hopes of shooting down ballistic missiles, says the new Patriot is a great improvement. It may even be scoring well against Iraqi missiles, he says. "It is plausible they are working on these targets." But he adds, "That does not prove much." Scuds, if Iraq has any left, move twice as fast as the small tactical missiles launched so far. Intercontinental rocketsfrom, say, North Koreawould be even tougher to hit. A full-scale missile defense would try to stop them with "layers" of different interceptors, perhaps including Patriots. But these missiles would be falling from the edge of space, traveling three times as fast as a Scud.