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In Event of War, Patriots Won't Be on Front Line

The Pentagon considers the antimissile system so unreliable that it plans to try taking out Iraq's Scud launchers before they can be used.

November 02, 2002|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A decade after its fiery combat debut in the Persian Gulf War, the capabilities of the Patriot antimissile system remain so uncertain that it will play only a secondary role if the United States again goes to war with Iraq, say U.S. officials and analysts.

The Patriot, the Pentagon's most advanced antimissile system, is already deployed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Israel to help defend against Iraq's inventory of two dozen to four dozen Scud missiles.

Yet despite an intensive development effort since 1991, the Patriot's ability to destroy all its targets is considered so unreliable that Pentagon planners are focusing their antimissile efforts on how best to find and destroy Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's mobile Scud launchers before the missiles are fired, according to U.S. and private analysts.

The missile defense mission is a top priority in war planning because Hussein is expected to try to bombard U.S. troops, Israelis or other allies with Scuds tipped with chemical or biological warheads if attacked. In the Gulf War, the most damaging attack on U.S. forces was a conventional Scud strike that hit an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers and injuring 99.

Iraqi Scuds also hit Israel, but the U.S. applied diplomatic pressure and used financial inducements to keep the Jewish state from responding. This time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned the Bush administration that Israel will strike back if Scuds cause civilian casualties.

Fearful that an Israeli response would inflame the Arab world, the U.S. has made eliminating Scuds a priority.

Pentagon officials say they are confident that the Patriot will eventually work reliably. But they acknowledge that the model now in the field, the Patriot Advance Capability-2, has limitations. A more advanced version, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, or PAC-3, continues to struggle through development.

The PAC-3 ran into unexpected problems during a round of testing this year. Fewer than half the tests were successful, prompting Army officials to put off full-scale production for at least a year.

Some private defense experts question whether even the PAC-3 could take out Scuds in battle conditions, noting that the Iraqi missiles fly an unpredictable path that makes it hard for Patriots to hit them.

And some contend that the Patriot may be ineffective against newer short-range Iraqi missiles, which could be launched in volleys that they say could overwhelm the Patriot system.

Patriots rely on sophisticated radar and computers to identify threatening missiles or aircraft when they come within range. The system automatically fires interceptor missiles that travel at 4,000 feet per second and destroy the enemy missiles as they arc down toward Earth.

Asked if the military now views the Patriot as the answer to the Iraqi missile threat, defense officials express confidence in the technology but stop short of promising that it can be relied on to knock down a high percentage of Scuds.

"It's been tested pretty rigorously, we've been at it a long time, and we're ready to declare it's a useful military system," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Missile Defense Agency, said Thursday at a meeting with reporters.

During the Gulf War, the weapon at first appeared to be highly successful as a "Scud buster." Then-President Bush declared that in 42 attempts, Patriots had destroyed 41 Scuds.

But soon it became clear that the Patriot interceptors were often striking only metal debris from disintegrating Scuds, not touching their warheads. After the war, a congressional study found that the Patriots had been effective against only four Scuds; one Israeli study contended the number was zero.

Plans to give the Patriot a limited role in any new campaign against Iraq come as a disappointment to missile defense advocates who have embraced it as proof that this complex, expensive technology can work.

Critics of the program point to the problems as evidence of the immense challenges the Bush administration faces in building the much larger and more elaborate long-range missile defense system that is its ultimate goal.

James M. Lindsay, a former National Security Council aide who advocates a limited national missile defense, said the Patriot "is going to play only a supporting role.... The military is hopeful for what Patriot could do, but they clearly don't intend to rely on it solely."

Lindsay, now a Brookings Institution scholar, said this means missile defense advocates must confront the core questions of the missile defense program, "which has been long on promises and short on products."

There is also skepticism about the Patriot from America's closest military ally in the region, Israel.

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