Pentagon reports indicate that Patriot missile defense systems destroyed all the Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles they were fired at, but the system also shot down two coalition aircraft and targeted a third during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Contrary to initial reports, most of the intercepts were done by older model Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) missiles rather than the more heralded, newer Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors, which saw limited action.
Patriot interceptors destroyed nine Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles, while another six Iraqi missiles were “not fired at, based on the predicted impact area,” Lieutenant Yvonne Lukson, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told Arms Control Today April 21. CENTCOM has not announced how many total Patriot missiles were fired.
Lukson identified Iraqi munitions launched at coalition forces and Kuwait as Ababil-100 and al Samoud missiles, FROG rockets, and one cruise missile. Iraq did not fire any Scud missiles, which vexed an early version of the Patriot in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
U.S.-led coalition and Kuwaiti forces deployed PAC-3s and upgraded versions of the PAC-2 to defend against Iraqi missile attacks. PAC-2 missiles employ a warhead that explodes near the target to destroy it, while the PAC-3 interceptor is designed to smash its target in a high-speed collision.
Upgraded PAC-2s were more numerous, used more extensively, and recorded most of the Iraqi missile intercepts. All told, Lukson reported that two Iraqi ballistic missiles had been destroyed by PAC-3s. A total of four PAC-3s had been fired at the two targets.
Early on in the military campaign, U.S. officials suggested they were using the newer PAC-3 to protect coalition forces and Kuwait. A spokesperson at the Coalition Press Information Center said March 24 that up to that point six Iraqi ballistic missiles had been destroyed and that all Patriots fired had been PAC-3s. Initial CENTCOM press releases regarding Patriot intercepts also implied that the military was only using the PAC-3, stating “The PATRIOT system deployed on the battlefield today is the latest version, referred to as a PAC-3.”
Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, testified April 9 that PAC-3 use was limited due to a short supply of the interceptors. By the end of last year, just more than 50 PAC-3s had been delivered to the U.S. Army for possible deployment.
While cautioning that intercept data still needed to be evaluated, Kadish described the Patriot’s most recent battlefield record as “very, very good.”
Questions abound about why Patriots mistakenly attacked coalition aircraft. A number of factors could be responsible, including human error or procedural, mechanical, or software failures.
Kadish offered no explanation, saying that the incidents are under investigation.
Philip Coyle, who served as the director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation for most of the Clinton administration and conducted reviews of the Patriot, stated April 22 that the system’s radar is “excellent…and should be able to tell the difference” between an airplane and a missile. “What’s not so clear is whether the Patriot software has been written properly to use the information from the radar to discriminate an aircraft from a missile,” Coyle said.
Coyle also speculated that “friend or foe” identification systems, which help tell enemy and allied equipment apart, could have failed.
The Patriot system did engage the wrong targets in at least two previous Pentagon exercises. In a March 2000 joint forces field evaluation, the Patriot system targeted friendly aircraft “on two occasions,” a Joint Forces Command spokesperson said April 22. More recently, there were “simulated, unintended engagements of friendly forces” by the Patriot system in an April 2002 exercise, the same spokesperson reported April 24.
The Patriot was initially designed to counter aircraft, but the U.S. military pressed it into service in the 1991 conflict to protect against Iraqi missiles. Initial reports asserted Patriot operated almost perfectly, but the Pentagon scaled back its claims in the face of mounting contradictory evidence. The General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations for Congress, assessed in 1992 that the “strongest evidence” supported about nine percent of the reported intercepts, but other analyses set the figure lower.