WASHINGTON — For five months, the 360 men and women of Lt. Col. Lee Neel's Patriot air defense battalion swaddled their electronic equipment in damp facecloths to keep it cool, cleaned sand and dust from its air filters with cotton swabs and stared into the cathode rays of its radar screens for signs of an Iraqi air attack that seemed as if it would never come.
But just before 3 a.m. last Friday, a single winking "track" on the Patriot's radar display announced that months of tedium--and two years of training--had come to an end. As an Iraqi Scud missile sped toward the Saudi Arabian port city of Dhahran, Neel's Patriot operators, overcoming an agonizing moment of terror, executed a well-rehearsed, split-second response, and the Patriot--a system that cost almost $5 billion and took 25 years to develop--did the rest.
Seconds later, a 17-foot Patriot missile sped 17,000 feet into the sky, caught the Scud as it arced its way earthward and, in a shower of sparks, detonated on impact.
The age of "Star Wars" had arrived.
The Patriot missile, which started life in the dowdy world of air-defense artillery--weapons that shoot down aircraft--has suddenly turned into the Pentagon's hottest commodity and promises to become one of America's premier exports after the war in the gulf has spent its fury. It is the U.S. arsenal's silver bullet against what so far has been Iraq's most feared weapon--the inaccurate and unpredictable Scud missile, 22 of which have so far been hurled toward Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Although none of the Scuds fired so far appear to have carried the chemical warheads that cause dread throughout the Middle East, the U.S. high command has issued the most urgent of orders: The Scuds have got to be stopped.
As a result, Raytheon Co., the principal manufacturer of the Patriot missile, stands to reap a windfall. Although the Pentagon has not ordered new batches of Patriots, it has accelerated existing orders for replacements. On Monday, Raytheon's stock jumped 4 1/2 points to close at 74 5/8 in anticipation of future purchases.
Economically hard-hit Massachusetts would benefit as well. Raytheon--a leader in missiles and military electronics that also turns out such prosaic products as Amana microwave ovens and Speed Queen laundry equipment--is the state's largest employer, with 6,000 people at a Massachusetts plant making the Patriot and a predecessor missile system.
The success of the Patriot has naturally stirred immense pride at Raytheon and at other firms throughout the country that participate in the program.
"There's a great sense of pride" among Raytheon workers, said Robert Skelly, a spokesman for Raytheon in Massachusetts. "Like most people across the country, these people have friends and relatives in the Gulf. They're very mindful of the importance of protecting those people and the strategic sites there."
Last Line of Defense
The Patriot is the U.S.-led coalition's clutch player in the game against the Scuds. It is the final line of defense in cases where the Iraqi missiles have eluded what President Bush has called "the darnedest search-and-destroy effort that's ever been taken."
On Monday morning, after the Dhahran-based "Scudbusters" had destroyed nine of the missiles, Neel's crew was blinking under a formidable row of television lights and trying to explain how a missile that travels three times the speed of sound--never before tested in battle--can shimmy around the night sky and find another whizzing missile in a matter of seconds.
"It's a very well-orchestrated, well-executed drill," said Capt. Joe DeAntona, a battery commander with the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Air Defense Artillery. "There's not a lot of things that have to occur."
But, under a barrage of questions more withering than the Scud attacks, DeAntona conceded that the scene around the Patriot battery Sunday night was one of "organized chaos," as dozens of men and women in the battalion began scrambling for their chemical suits. Meanwhile, in the small trailer that houses the electronic gear that pinpoints the incoming Scud track on a computer screen, three soldiers tensely plotted each missile's trajectory, determining which firing company would have it within range and eventually should fire a Patriot to meet and destroy it.
"I'm a former athlete--I definitely have been on some highs, but last night took me quite high," said an enthusiastic Pfc. Ted Phillips, a former Alabama A&M football player. "Coming over here is like training as the athletes do--the spring training, going through the training program that's set forth by the coaches, and then . . . "
"It was the interception of your life," someone interrupted.