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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Pentagon Claims PAC-3 Success Against Iraqi Missiles
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Wade Boese

Initial military reports from the Iraq war say that the small stockpile of U.S. Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-ballistic missiles is performing well, but one destroyed a British fighter jet and another targeted a U.S. combat aircraft. The Pentagon deployed a predecessor of the PAC-3 in the 1991 Persian Gulf War that was also credited initially with working almost flawlessly, but those claims were later significantly revised.

The number of PAC-3 interceptors available for action is limited. Just more than 50 had been purchased and delivered to the U.S. Army for deployment by the end of last year. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said March 18 that the Pentagon planned to have as many as 348 PAC-3 missiles by the end of 2005.

In a nearly $75 billion fiscal year 2003 supplemental budget request unveiled March 25, the Bush administration is asking Congress for $3.7 billion to replenish expended munitions, or at least munitions that are expected to be expended, including the Patriot.

As of March 27, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that Patriot interceptors, some specifically PAC-3s, have destroyed eight Iraqi missiles since the start of the conflict. CENTCOM did not respond to questions on exactly how many Patriot interceptors have been fired, which specific Patriot systems were involved in the intercepts, and the total number and type of Iraqi missiles launched at Kuwait and U.S.-led forces.

The loss of a British Tornado combat aircraft and its two crewmen returning from a March 23 mission over Iraq was also attributed to a PAC-3 interceptor. U.S. military officials are not certain why the PAC-3 fired on the jet, and they are conducting an investigation.

Although early developmental testing of the PAC-3 went very well, the system failed to meet expectations in tougher testing last year. In four tests between February and May involving multiple targets and multiple interceptors, PAC-3s destroyed only two of the five targets assigned them. Of the seven PAC-3s to be fired in those tests, two destroyed their targets, one hit but did not destroy its target, one missed its target, and three did not launch.

PAC-3 is an updated version of the Patriot system deployed during the 1991 Gulf War. Designed to counter aircraft and not missiles, the earlier version employed a warhead that exploded when it was in close proximity to its target. The PAC-3, however, does not have an explosive warhead but destroys targets by colliding with them.

Shortly after the 1991 conflict, the Army claimed that the Patriot system successfully intercepted 45 of 47 Iraqi Scud missiles that the system engaged. Although the Pentagon would gradually lower its estimate, the General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations for Congress, reported in September 1992 that the “strongest evidence” suggested that Patriot succeeded in only nine percent of its intercept attempts. Israel has contended that the Patriot system might have shot down just one Iraqi missile.