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Associated Press April 23, 2003

Verdict out on Patriot performance, but friendly fire kills a problem

By HANS GREIMEL

At this stage in the 1991 Gulf War, the Patriot missile was a celebrated war hero credited with countless kills of Iraqi rockets. Only later was it learned that Patriots downed Scuds no more than four times in 47 firings.

This time, the Patriots have blasted more than 10 missiles but are being branded one of the biggest letdowns of the war.

The problem: The missile system also shot down two allied jet fighters.

"Obviously the biggest technological disappointment is the Patriot," said John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "Those are the only two airplanes that Patriots have ever shot down. The big glitch was the Patriot friendly fire."

The U.S. military, the Patriot's manufacturer and analysts say it is too early to tell how effective the Patriots were. But the system showed lethal flaws, despite a $3 billion upgrade of older Patriots since 1991.

The Patriot missile has been manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. at plants in Texas and Arkansas. Army soldiers at Fort Bliss in West Texas are trained and deployed for their operation. Members of the 507th Maintenance Company who were ambushed and taken prisoner by Iraqis are part of the 111th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, a Patriot missile unit.

Three coalition aviators were killed by Patriot hits, and the strikes accounted for nearly half the five airplanes lost by American and British forces. Iraqis apparently shot down two other fighters, while a third accidentally slid off a U.S. aircraft carrier.

"It didn't have to happen. Our own people killed him," Ana Mitchell said after her brother, Lt. Nathan White, was shot down in his F/A-18 south of Baghdad on April 2.

Two crew members of a British Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft became the war's first friendly-fire victims, when a Patriot battery hit them March 23.

Tragedy nearly struck again March 25, when a Patriot battery south of Najaf locked its radar onto an American F-16 fighter. The jet shot out the battery's radar system before its missiles had a chance to fire.

Raytheon Corp., which makes the Patriot as well as the Tomahawk cruise missile, bills the Patriot as "the world's most advanced ground-based air defense system."

But Raytheon spokesman Steve Brecken said it was premature to judge the Patriot's performance over the monthlong war. Asked about the friendly-fire episodes, he referred all questions to U.S. Central Command in Doha.

"We're only the manufacturer of the system, not its operational user," he said.

Central Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens said that the missile's overall performance was "pretty good" but that the military is still investigating the downing of the planes.

At least 17 Iraqi missiles were launched from southern Iraq toward Kuwait during the war - almost all of them brought down by U.S. or Kuwaiti-operated Patriots.

Others fell harmlessly into the Persian Gulf or the desert, while another - a ground-hugging cruise missile - slipped under the radar and exploded near a pier in Kuwait City. Two people were treated for minor injuries.

Col. Jasim al-Huwaitan, who ran a Kuwaiti-operated Patriot missile battery during the war, has said it was "100 percent effective in its coverage area."

Rupert Pengelley, technical editor at the defense watcher Jane's Information Group, also said it was too early to say how effective the Patriots were. But he said there was "extreme cause for concern over the identification systems used for friend or foe."

Further study is needed to see exactly how many Patriots were fired, how many hit their targets and how challenging those targets were. Few, if any, of the missiles shot down during the war are believed to be the elusive Scuds that would really put Patriots to the test, Pengelley said.

After the Gulf War, the Pentagon trumpeted the Patriot's effectiveness by claiming an 80 percent success rate. But a congressional analysis afterward said Patriots shot down Scuds just four times in 47 firings.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology missile expert Theodore Postol declared in 1991 there was no evidence the Patriots ever hit a Scud.

Since then, Raytheon and subcontractor Lockheed Martin have made substantial improvements.

"At this point in the last Gulf War, we thought the Patriot did a great job," Pike said. "At this point now, I just don't know."


Copyright 2003, Associated Press State & Local Wire