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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Wired March 21, 2003

Gussied Up Patriots Debut in Iraq

By Noah Shachtman

The star of Gulf War I has gotten a face lift and is being prepped for a leading role in the sequel. But it's unclear whether the Patriot missile system will be able to improve much in 2003 on its two-left-feet performance of 1991.

"One would reasonably expect (the Patriot) to work better than the last time around, but that's not saying much," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Just a day into the second Gulf War, the American military claims the Patriots successfully destroyed two incoming Iraqi missiles bound for American positions in Kuwait.

But such pronouncements about the Patriot have been off before. When the Patriot was first used, American officials said it had a 100 percent success rate in knocking down Iraqi Scud missiles. But those numbers turned out to be about as authentic as Sadddam Hussein's "unanimous" re-election results last year.

The Army now claims a 70 percent kill-rate over Saudi Arabia, and a 40 percent kill-rate over Israel. But in 2001, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen told a group of reporters that the system simply didn't work during the Gulf conflict.

That said, it's no surprise that the original Patriots weren't entirely successful.

"They were never designed to take out missiles," said Victoria Samson, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. "They were built to take out airplanes, which are considerably slower-flying."

The old Patriot didn't hit its target directly. Instead, it detonated a blast fragmentation warhead nearby.

A souped-up version of this original missile -- now deployed in Israel, Japan, the Netherlands and elsewhere -- relies on the same approach. But the PAC-2 GEM+ (short for Patriot Advanced Capability Phase 2 Guided Enhanced Missile Plus) has upgraded software, radar and the like to improve accuracy.

The PAC-3 is an altogether different species. In defense jargon, it's a "hit-to-kill" weapon -- meaning it actually strikes its target, rather than just exploding nearby. The missiles use rocket motors, not little wings, to steer. And each missile has its own built-in radar to help it determine a target's location in flight.

The PAC-2's have to rely almost solely on ground-based radar, "which is OK if the target is the size of a small house. But if you're shooting at something the size of a trash can, you're in trouble," Globalsecurity.org's Pike said.

But the system is much more than the missile, which costs about $3.5 million each, by Samson's estimation. Each PAC-3 battery comes with up to eight launchers, holding 16 missiles each, as well as a control station, a radar set, a power plant, a maintenance center and an antenna array -- all of which are carried on a separate trailer.

Here's how the system works, according to the Missile Defense Agency and Raytheon, the defense contractor primarily responsible for building the Patriot system: An MPQ-53-phased array radar automatically scans the skies for incoming missiles, using overlapping "pencil beams" to look for targets. When one is found, the information is transmitted through a cable link to the MSQ-104 Engagement Control Station -- the only manned component of the Patriot system.

Once the target is confirmed, one of the three operators inside the station sends the order to fire through a VHF radio or a fiber optic link. The missile receives some initial guidance from the ground radar. Then it locks into the target on its own, and closes in on its target.

That sounds great -- in theory. But in practice, PAC-3's performance has been questionable, at best. Early-stage developmental trials went well -- the Patriots hit their targets 10 out of 11 times. But more realistic operational assessments went less well, with only two "kills" in seven tries.

"My office found the system not to be effective, and so did the Army Test and Evaluation Command," said Philip Coyle, director of the Pentagon's independent weapons testing program from 1994 to 2001.

None of the Patriot missiles were tested against weapons in the Iraqi arsenal, like Scud or Al Samoud missiles, Coyle added. Those confrontations may come in the 23 tests of the PAC-3 scheduled over the next several years.

The Army did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the PAC-3's record in trials. But an official at Raytheon said Coyle and others didn't understand what the tests were designed to do.

"What we were testing was the entire system, not just whether we could kill a target at the end," the official added. "The end game may not be to intercept the missile."

Iraq is no test ground, however. In battle, interception will be the only standard for success.

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