CBS 11 News February 05, 2004
"Blue On Blue"
How Did An Army Patriot Missile Battery Shoot Down A Navy F-18?
By Robert Riggs
An investigation by CBS 11 News (KTVT-TV Dallas/Fort Worth) questions, "Did chronic problems with the U.S. Army's newly upgraded three billion dollar Raytheon built Patriot Missile system contribute to shooting down the only U.S. Navy pilot lost during combat in Iraq?"
The Army has uniformly praised the Patriot Missile system's performance during the war, shooting down all nine Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles (TBM's) it engaged.
Until now, the circumstances of the Patriot fratricide that killed 30-year-old Navy Lieutenant Nathan White of Abilene, Texas on April 2nd of last year have been cloaked in the secrecy of an Army investigation. So has the March 2003 Patriot Missile downing of a British RAF Tornado Bomber ten days earlier.
A CBS-11 News investigation conducted by reporter Robert Riggs, who was embedded with a Patriot Missile battery during the war, has uncovered evidence that friendly aircraft showed up on Patriot radars as incoming enemy missiles. Yet, Patriot operators on the ground were not alerted, nor coalition aircrews above, that similar problems had surfaced in a Patriot Missile unit stationed in Jordan in the months before the invasion.
In Lieutenant White's last email sent home from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, Dennis White says the only warning his son and fellow pilots ever received was the chilling news some four days earlier that a Patriot Missile had blasted apart a British RAF Tornado, killing its two crew members. An email that Lt. White sent to his mother in Abilene shortly before a Patriot Missile blew up his own plane talked about, "steering clear of the Patriot batteries."
On April 2, 2003, a Patriot Missile fired by fellow American soldiers in Iraq sheared off the cockpit of Lt. White's F-18, and the smoldering tail of his F-18 crashed into a south-central Iraq lake located west of Karbala. More than one hundred Navy, Marine, Army, and Special Operations launched a massive search and rescue operation. They recovered Lt. White's body floating near the eastern bank of the lake on April 12, 2003.
Lt. White was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery on April 24th with full military honors. A wife and three children survive him.
At his home in Abilene, Dennis White proudly chronicles his son's life with snapshots from their Boy Scout campouts, memories of Nathan White's work as a Mormon missionary in Japan, and flight deck photographs of the beloved F-18 pilot nicknamed "OJ".
Dennis White is a former Air Force pilot who flew C-130 cargo planes during the Vietnam War. He also flew with the current Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. White has patiently waited ten months for an official explanation of how a Patriot missile killed his son. White stresses that he will do what he can to prevent another Patriot fratricide, or "blue on blue" incident, from taking the life of anyone else's son or daughter.
Last February, an embedded news team from CBS 11 (KTVT in Dallas) witnessed chronic problems with the Patriot missile system. CBS 11 News reporter Robert Riggs, photographer/editor, Billy Sexton and field producer, Steve Narissi were embedded with the 5th Battalion 52nd Air Defense Artillery (5-52 ADA) which had been deployed to Kuwait from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
The CBS 11 News team first witnessed problems on the Patriot's radar shortly after arriving at Camp Virginia in Kuwait, headquarters' for the Army's V Corps. Ground rules for embedded reporters at that time prohibited them from reporting about the problems.
Inside, the 5-52 ADA's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) soldiers focused on what appeared on their radar display screens as the symbol of an incoming tactical ballistic missile (TBM) from Iraq. Suddenly, an employee of Raytheon, the Patriot's defense contractor, threw open the door to the TOC and yelled, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Soldiers present breathed sighs of relief and told our news crew that, "We just came close to shooting down a Navy F-18".
A few days earlier BG Howard Bromberg had expressed strong confidence in the Patriot system during an interview with CBS 11 at Camp Doha in his headquarters for the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command. Bromberg, speaking about the newly fielded PAC-3 missile system said, "I was involved with testing before so I am very comfortable with the capability we have here right now. I think it was more than adequate, numerous test shots before we decided to field this system. So I am comfortable with that".
Yet, CBS-11 has learned that the American military had indication that there were problems with the Patriot system much earlier.
John Pike of the Washington DC-based think tank Global Security said he discovered a confidential "Initial Lessons Learned" power point report about the Patriot's problems that was inadvertently posted on the Army's Fort Bliss website in November 2003. Pike posted the report on his Global Security-dot-org before the Army realized its mistake and deleted it.
The report states that a Patriot Missile battery in Jordan before the invasion experienced problems with false enemy missile tracks. "This information was not shared with Patriot units supporting the Marine Expeditionary Force in Kuwait.had the.experience been shared throughout the (area of responsibility) then the problem.could have been minimized," The internal Army report, published six months after the invasion, stated.
Pike said complex computerized weapon systems can-and did, in the Patriot's case-act up in mysterious ways, "The problem was that there was not a single ghost in the machine but that it was a haunted house. They had lots of ghosts. Every radar was reporting a separate track and if you get enough data input the computer is going to get awfully confused."
Ted Postol, the MIT science professor who testified before Congress about problems he found with the Patriot's performance during the 1991 Gulf War, says the Army's Patriot organization "has a long history of failing to fix problems and failing to acknowledge problems". Postol adds, "The fact that they know or knew that this was a problem was going on, raises questions of negligence."
A Raytheon spokesman referred questions about the Patriot's performance to the Army. An Army spokesman at the Pentagon and the spokeswoman at Fort Bliss say their commanders cannot discuss what happened until the two fratricide investigations are finished.
Meanwhile, the Army's official, widely published report on the Patriot's war record does not acknowledge that hundreds of false missile tracks occurred and that both downed coalition fighters showed up on Patriot Missile radar scopes as enemy tactical ballistic missiles (TBM's).
In northern Kuwait in the weeks before the invasion, unfolding problems with the 5-52 ADA's Patriot missile batteries became evident to CBS-11's news team.
Echo Battery's launchers marked the first line of defense against Saddam Hussein's SCUDS and other types of tactical ballistic missiles, and tensions were rising among U.S. soldiers.
Intelligence briefings during the battalion's daily battle updates indicated Saddam would likely launch a preemptive missile attack tipped with weapons of mass destruction. Captain David McCoy, the commander of Echo battery, stressed the importance of the Patriot's protection against Iraq's TBM's saying, "It can disrupt the battlefield. It can slow down friendly forces. Cause immense casualties. Mass casualties. It's just something you don't want to be hit with and the threat is always there that he can load those missiles with that type of agents whether it be chemical or biological. And we are the ones who are going to knock it down".
That threat was felt most intensely inside Echo Battery's war wagon called an Engagement Control Station (ECS). Inside a compartment mounted on a truck, a pair of Echo Battery's soldiers sat side by side at battle stations watching their individual radarscopes for signs of trouble. From his right seat position, Lt. James Chase, the Tactical Control Officer told CBS 11 that a big mental challenge in a combat situation was, "being a quick thinker. As well as staying calm and making the right decision".
In the left seat, Specialist Terrence Barnes, the Tactical Control Assistant, described how he would manipulate the radar's joystick to "hook" a target to start the process of identifying if it was a friend or foe, "You've got to be quick and you've got to be a fast thinker. You've got to be able to react fast". The Patriot soldiers would have precious few minutes if not seconds to try to shoot down an Iraqi missile moving up to three times the speed of sound. Neither of the soldiers was involved in the later friendly fire incident.
Patriot radarscopes began showing friendly aircraft as enemy TBM's. More often, the radar showed false or what the Army called "spurious" missile tracks that did not exist. The CBS-11 team witnessed heart-pounding moments when false missile targets appeared on the radar screens.
Commanders and soldiers told CBS-11 they had never seen anything like the ghost missiles until operating in Kuwait. We observed one battalion Battle Captain writing daily reports about the problem, which he said, were being sent to higher command.
After repeated false missile incidents CBS-11 was present when Battalion Commander LTC Joe Fischetti confronted a Raytheon representative attached to the unit. Fischetti demanded answers. "You guys are suppose to be the geniuses," Fischetti said forcefully, demanding: "Tell me what's wrong!"
CBS-11 witnessed briefings in which Raytheon's on site trainer explained that he was unable to get the Patriot system to replicate the false missile tracks for training purposes. The absence of additional help appeared particularly frustrating to Echo Battery. Colonel Heidi Brown, Commander of the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, had heaped praise on Echo's qualifications saying, "This is a great battery. They are very motivated. There are very few Patriot batteries in the world. Everyone wants them. Everyone wants their piece of ground covered."
The battalion's soldiers struggled to figure out how to tell the difference between a false missile track and a real one. And when the Iraqis started firing real missiles, there appeared to be some uncertainty among the Patriot operators about the sophisticated weapons system.
On March 20, 2003, one of Echo Battery's counterparts, Delta Battery of the 11th Brigade Air Defense Artillery, shot down the first Iraqi missile over Kuwait. Army commanders praised the Patriot missile system for protecting four thousand soldiers and one hundred helicopters from the 101st Airborne based at a tactical assembly area named Thunder.
But during an interview shortly after that first engagement, a soldier in the Engagement Control Station (ECS) told CBS -11 that at first he wondered if the missile was real.
The following day, Echo Battery moved out as part of the spearhead of the massive ground invasion force. It was the first Patriot unit to cross into Iraq. Echo's mission was to charge deep into Iraq to near Najaf to provide an umbrella of air coverage for the desert base of the 101st Airborne Division. The Army planned to initially position forty percent of its helicopters there.
Despite the false missile track readings on the Patriot's radar, CBS-11 did not witness any change in the rules of engagement. Patriots were on "weapons free," meaning a battalion could launch without higher approval.
On the third day of the invasion, Echo learned that Charley Battery, which was under command of the 11th Brigade, shot down a British Tornado returning to Kuwait from a mission in Iraq.
Initially , word of the catastrophe reached Echo Battery that fault lay with the two dead crewmembers. It has since been reported in published news accounts that the bomber crew had failed to turn on the IFF, a special device designed to signal coalition forces that theirs was a friendly aircraft.
But CBS-11 has learned from Army sources that Charley Battery's radar showed the British jet as an incoming enemy cruise missile.
On April 2, 2003, just after midnight, Lt. White was completing a bombing raid over south-central Iraq. He was high over a strategic area known as the Karbola Gap, a chokepoint on the invasion route to Baghdad. If the Iraqis could mount a successful defense there, the invasion could be thwarted, at least temporarily.
Prior to the start of the war, CBS-11 was present when the 5-52 had received intelligence briefings that had predicted heavy attacks with missiles loaded with chemical warheads in the Karbola Gap.
The CBS-11 news team departed Echo Battery, but sources describe what happened next.
The soldiers of Echo and other Patriot batteries were on high alert. Their radar's were clearly showing friendly aircraft in the region at the time. But the, sources say, Echo's Patriot radar scopes displayed Lt. White's Navy F-18 as a highly credible enemy ballistic missile symbol that did not resemble any false missile track that had been seen before.
The symbol indicated that the TBM was being tracked on radar by multiple Patriot batteries. Moreover, the Patriot radar showed a launch point in Iraq and an impact point on none other than Echo Battery's position.
Sources say there was further corroboration that an enemy missile had been launched and was headed Echo's way.
The ICC for the 5-52 ADA also showed the TBM track and a second target that the radar identified as unknown. The Information and Coordination Central (ICC), the battalion's mobile command and control center for the Patriot's air battle, confirmed the enemy missile track.
With precious seconds remaining before the incoming missile's predicted impact, an officer in the ICC issued the order for Echo Battery to bring its launchers up to operate. That in effect "cocked the gun" to set in motion a sequence leading to an automated launch of two missiles.
Under ideal conditions, the soldiers could have obtained additional information about the attributes of the target. By pressing a tab called track amplification data, it would tell whether the target was flying as fast as a missile or as slow as an aircraft. But before the data could be checked, the Patriots were leaving the launchers at supersonic speed.
Inside the war wagon a few seconds later, radars showed that the TBM target had been destroyed. But unbeknownst to the euphoric crews of Echo and the 5-52, what was left of Lt. White and his Navy F-18 was hurtling down into a lake.
Their euphoria, however was short lived. About 100 miles south of Echo, the Patriot crew of Alpha Battery narrowly averted shooting down Lt. White's lead F-18, which was still flying. The second F-18 had suddenly turned from an unknown target symbol on the radarscope into another enemy TBM. Being further to the rear, Alpha had more time to examine their flight data, sources say.
And despite orders to launch, officers waited to closer examine the flight data for the TBM target.
Army sources say the false missile tracks continued the next day. Echo Battery's radar displayed fifteen TBM's at once and the battery had lost communication with the ICC for additional confirmation. Echo had the authority to shoot in that situation but its air battle commanders did not trust the system to take any action. Sources say the TBM's tracks were believed to have been friendly aircraft.
For the Army's fratricide investigation, it is nearly impossible to accurately reconstruct the events. None of the electronic data recorders in the 5-52 were working. CBS-11 News team had heard frequent complaints from soldiers that the data recorders had a long history of breaking down and that spares were in short supply.
Lt. White's father, Dennis White, decries the Army's failure to make all Coalition pilots aware that the Patriot radars were showing friendly aircraft as enemy missiles.
"I feel absolutely that they didn't include the Navy or the Air Force about what the potential dangers were and how to avoid it."
White says he has deep compassion for the Army soldiers involved in the incident, "I wish I could talk to them. I don't know that I could put their heart at rest or at ease, but again I know that they were doing their level best under a very trying condition."
And, he said he worries that low ranking soldiers who were there may be made scapegoats for technical problems.
Sources say the false missile track problem has continued in recent months during training exercises at Fort Bliss. The Army's official version of the Patriot's war record makes no mention that friendly aircraft were being identified on radar as enemy missiles.
White says he is worried that more pilots may be place in harm's way, "To pretend that it doesn't exist. That worries me because I can see, we are going to have some other mom and dad out there who are sitting comfortably in their home and they do not know who they are yet but they are going to understand exactly how we feel."
© Copyright 2004, MMIV, CBS Broadcasting Inc.