In 1991 I was 20 years old and was preoccupied with issues that young men of that age usually have. However, one other event occurred that year that captured my attention: the first Gulf War.
After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein rolled his tanks into the tiny neighbouring, and extremely wealthy, kingdom of Kuwait, an outraged President George Bush Sr. Organized a subsequent rescue mission including a combination of American, British, French, Canadian and many other forces.
You may remember a boisterous American Gen. Schwarzkopf boasting of the coalition’s vast technological superiority over their Iraqi opponents. For the most part, he was correct. But there was one very famous weapon whose reputation remains in question to this day.
Do you remember the Patriot missile?
This was the self-guiding projectile that was supposed to eradicate any threat from Hussein’s Soviet-designed SCUD ballistic missiles. The American government was worried those SCUDs, which had long enough range to hit Israel and Saudi Arabia, would cause serious problems to the coalition (if Israel retaliated against an Arab nation after a SCUD hit, keeping other Arab nations in line would be very difficult).
Enter the Patriot. Manufactured by the Raytheon company, the Patriot contained an advanced radar array and explosive system that, in theory, allowed it to track incoming aerial vehicles and destroy them before they could find their targets.
We were told during the Gulf War the Patriot was one of the most successful weapon system ever devised. President Bush, speaking at the Raytheon factory on Feb. 15, 1991, said “Patriot is 41 for 42: 42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted.” That’s almost 100 per cent success rate. With computers involved, that alone should have raised red flags.
After the war an independent review of the Patriot conducted by MIT found evidence and testimony that alleged the Patriot’s success rate was much lower than that. In fact some critics claimed the Patriot’s success rate could be as low as zero per cent: it hadn’t stopped anything at all.
A problem noted during the war is that the Patriot, when tracking an incoming target, allegedly couldn’t tell the difference between a SCUD warhead and debris. The Iraqis had modified their SCUDS for longer range, and some of the missiles were coming apart before hitting their targets and the Patriot couldn’t identify a warhead. So it exploded next to debris, allowing the warhead to continue on.
Another problem came from the fact the Patriot was initially intended to destroy aircraft, and as it tracked an airplane, the Patriot tended to hit it dead-centre. To destroy an aircraft, this can be effective. To destroy a ballistic missile, less so. If the Patriot hit in the centre of the SCUD, the warhead was left undamaged and could still fall to earth and detonate.
Another issue facing the American military was how to record a successful Patriot strike. Many of the strikes occurred at night and much of the recording equipment was simple VHS tape.
I felt a little bit guilty that I was so quick to believe Schwarzkopf and Bush during the war. Many people believed them when they said that the Patriot was effective, especially, for example, Israelis, who were the targets of SCUD missile attacks and, in reality, had no defense.
Probably the most telling statement about the Patriot’s battle record was from a staff report from the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security: “The Patriot missile system was not the spectacular success in the Persian Gulf War that the American public was led to believe. There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War, and there are some doubts about even these engagements. The public and the United States Congress were misled by definitive statements of success issued by administration and Raytheon representatives during and after the war.”
Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.