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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Boston Globe April 30, 2004

MIT professor faults operation of Patriot missile

By Ross Kerber

Confused by multiple radar signals in a crowded airspace, the Army's Patriot antimissile system probably created false tracks of incoming enemy missiles and automatically fired, killing three allied jet pilots during fighting in Iraq a year ago, an MIT physicist estimates in a recent study.

Theodore A. Postol, professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contends the technical problems were exacerbated by poor training of soldiers manning the systems made by defense contractor Raytheon Co. of Waltham and a lack of communication with command units.

Together these flaws, some of which military reviewers have already acknowledged internally, "put the Patriot crews in an impossible situation," Postol wrote in a study he posted this month on a defense research group's website. He titled the paper "An Informed Guess" about what happened, based partly on a briefing paper by Army air-and-missile defense officials.

Postol gained national attention as a critic of the Patriot's performance during the Gulf War of 1991, and his statements are likely to increase pressure on military leaders to provide an official account of the friendly-fire cases more than a year ago in which Army Patriot crews apparently shot down a single-seat US Navy F/A-18 and British Royal Air Force Tornado fighter-bomber with two fliers aboard.

Their deaths marred what the Army says was an otherwise sterling performance by the Patriot, which they say knocked down nine of nine incoming ballistic missiles launched by Saddam Hussein's forces at targets where tens of thousands of allied troops were stationed. Much of the Patriot's technology is used in other parts of US missile-defense efforts, and a full review of the system's performance is awaited by many as a sign of the country's total capabilities.

Military officials declined to respond to Postol's review, though a retired Army air-defense general, Don Lionetti, called the technical flaws that Postol cites highly unlikely because of the precise way that radar systems track targets. He said the human errors and flaws in communications that officials have already found probably were more to blame.

But military officers have not described any firm conclusions about the friendly-fire cases, leaving Postol's study the most comprehensive, publicly available analysis of them, said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. The Washington, D.C., defense research organization supplied Postol military documents on which he based his review.

Pike said the study also raises fundamental questions about how well missile-defense radars can distinguish targets, including the expensive installation of a national missile-defense system in Alaska now underway.

"To me, it points to the fragility of missile-defense command and control," he said.

Asked about Postol's conclusions, a spokesman for the US Central Command in Florida, Navy Lieutenant Commander Matthew Klee, said last week that "Until the investigation has been completed and the results have been made available, our policy is that we don't speculate on ongoing investigations." Yesterday another spokesman said no date has been set for the release of the report.

The Patriot's prime contractor and system integrator is Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems unit, in Tewksbury. "During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Patriot air-and-missile-defense system performed as it was designed," said company spokesman Steve Brecken. "It would be premature of Raytheon to discuss the friendly-fire instances while they are still under investigation."

The Army spent heavily to upgrade the Patriot during the 1990s, and exported versions of the system have become important for customers including Germany and Taiwan. Raytheon hopes to sell more Patriot systems soon to Asian governments worried about North Korea's intentions. Much of the Patriot's ground infrastructure and many of its missiles are made at Raytheon's big production facility in Andover. Lockheed Martin Corp. won a contract to build the latest version of the Patriot missile itself, which uses "hit-to-kill" technology to ram and destroy an enemy missile.

In a series of telephone interviews, Postol cautioned that Pentagon or Army officials might still release a convincing, alternate explanation to the one he proposes. But he noted many points of the military studies that to him suggest technical and command problems were "almost certainly" the cause of the two friendly-fire cases, as well as the cause of a third case in which a US Air Force F-16 fired on a Patriot ground unit.

Postol believes the friendly-fire cases began when two or more Patriot battery radars tracked the same allied combat aircraft, bouncing multiple radio signals off it and creating spurious, or "ghost," tracks that would appear to be incoming ballistic missiles.

A Texas television team embedded with a Patriot unit last spring apparently witnessed what appeared to be a similar malfunction, Postal said in an interview. The crew described seeing a Patriot radar image of what appeared to be an incoming ballistic missile, according to a transcript from station KTVT. "Suddenly, an employee of Raytheon . . . 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,' " the transcript states.

Postol's account squares with some military reports. Last year, Army General Howard B. Bromberg said electromagnetic interference may have played a part in the friendly-fire cases, stemming from the close proximity of many Patriot radars and other electronic gear on the battlefield. Another Army report, obtained by Pike of globalsecurity.org last fall, suggested a host of training and communications problems that handicapped the system because its crews could not talk with other aircraft systems, such as the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, which had a more complete battlefield picture.

Postol became a controversial figure after the Gulf War, when his criticism prompted the Army and Raytheon to back off their claims that the Patriot had a near-perfect record shooting down Iraqi Scud missiles. Since then, he has also become a vocal opponent of the workability of some national missile-defense plans.

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

Copyright 2004, Boston Globe