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.
For all of its crews’ training and experience, the Patriot system itself is still a rookie in the missile-defense role. It was initially deployed with U.S. troops as an anti-aircraft weapon, but after 1985, the Pentagon launched a program to turn the air defense weapon into a missile interceptor--on grounds that tactical missiles were becoming a more frequent threat.
To that end, the Army has spent about $82 million since 1987 to transform the Patriot. At White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Pentagon has been testing the latest version of the weapon at a furious rate since August, when the gulf crisis began.
During trials, the Patriot successfully intercepted 15 out of 15 test missiles since 1986. Still, officials remained worried until last week’s combat successes.
When the Patriot downed nine missiles out of a volley of 10 over Saudi Arabia late Sunday, it knocked down more than Scuds: It overwhelmed the doubts of even those who had called last week’s single-shot success beginner’s luck.
For the Army, the combat successes of the Patriot have vindicated a costly and methodical development program that began in 1964, when the Pentagon ordered the development of a missile that would be able to hit a target at a greater range, as a successor for the Hawk air-defense missile.
“After only 25 years of work, it’s an overnight success,” says John Pike, an analyst of high-technology weaponry at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
Although the Patriot suffered software problems in tests during 1982 and 1983, the program drew fire on Capitol Hill, not for waste, mismanagement or failure to perform, but for its insistently plodding schedule. Lawmakers have fretted yearly about the system’s progress but have done little more than nick its budget and exhort its leaders to speed it up.
“I don’t care how long it took--the results are apparent,” says John R. Guthrie, retired general, who as commander of the Army Materiel Command oversaw the Patriot’s development from its earliest stages until 1981, just after production of the system began. “There were people back in those days that said you couldn’t hit a bullet with a bullet,” Guthrie recalls. “I’m sure they’re still saying that now that it’s shot down Scuds in Saudi Arabia. There are an awful lot of people with closed minds.”
Indeed, the Patriot, known during its initial development in the 1970s as the SAM-D (SAM stands for surface-to-air missile), came up through the Pentagon’s procurement ranks with a crowd of Army weapons that have withstood far greater controversy to make their combat debuts in Operation Desert Shield: the M-1 tank, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.
Last of 5 to Reach Field
The weapons were collectively known as the Big Five by Army brass. But, although all entered the “engineering development” stage in the early 1970s, the Patriot was the last to make it into the field.
“There were exhaustive studies, and one of the reasons it took so long is that we studied to death what we should or could expect from the system in terms of how much of the threat it could shoot down,” Guthrie says. “You got as many opinions as you had people doing studies.”
Also inflating the cost and schedule of the program was the Army’s insistence that the Patriot be a largely automated system capable of making the split-second decisions that mean life and death in the air-defense world--including the distinction between friendly and hostile aircraft.
“It’s a high-speed, Mach-3 world out there--there can’t be any indecision,” Neel asserts. He says the Patriot is designed to battle the dead hand of indecision with a level of automation that is virtually without precedent in the world of Army weapons.
That fact has led some supporters to dub the Patriot a “mini-Star Wars” system, arguing that the stubborn Iraqi missile threat--and the Patriots’ spectacular interceptions--have underscored the need for continued funding of missile defenses.
Among the political leaders expected to argue that case is Vice President Dan Quayle, a staunch advocate of “Star Wars” during his Senate years and an ardent proponent of the development of weapons to counter tactical ballistic missiles such as the Scud.
One Rationale Fades
With the signing of the U.S.-Soviet treaty banning medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, Quayle and other supporters of the short-range missile-busters have feared that the main rationale for their program--the Soviet missile threat to Western Europe--has disappeared. But with the proliferation of Scuds throughout the Third World, many argue that the need for the program is stronger than ever.
If “Star Wars” critics have their way, the Patriot--a bulky collection of olive-green radars, communications vans and tipped-up launch canisters--may be all that will ever emerge from President Ronald Reagan’s promise to deploy a “Star Wars” shield against missiles.
“It’s important to recognize this ain’t ‘Star Wars,’ ” says Pike, “and at least for this range of threats--for Scuds--the Patriot is more than adequate to the task.”
Pike says that, if “Star Wars” and the Patriot have any real link, it is that both compete for the same funds. Simpler systems such as the Patriot have mostly lost out to more-glamorous “Star Wars” technologies.
“If it’s a choice between something we know will work at a reasonable price today versus the Pentagon’s current ‘Star Wars’ plan . . . that won’t be available until the second half of this decade, that choice should be clear,” he asserts.
In the end, the same reasoning--that the Patriot is available and cheaper than higher-tech alternatives--has brought the Patriot its newest and most important customer to date--Israel.
Before last Sunday, when the United States rushed two batteries of Patriot missiles to Israel, the Jewish state had reluctantly agreed that only the U.S.-made system could offer them the protection they needed against Iraq’s Scuds.
Washington dispatched a pair of Patriot batteries from its arsenal in Europe and began training Israeli launch teams at the Army’s air-defense training school at Ft. Bliss, Tex. But the agreement came too late to train the Israelis and get the Patriot equipment there before the war.
After the Scud attacks on Israel, Washington sent two more Patriot batteries with U.S. launch teams to staff them.
The main reason that Jerusalem has been such a reluctant customer is that Israel has a Patriot-style weapon of its own--known as the Arrow--still on the drawing boards. U.S. officials say the Arrow is the only known competitor for the Patriot.
But, even though the Israelis have sunk $180 million into the program so far, the Arrow is thought to be about five years and many millions of dollars away from deployment.
As Iraq’s threats to launch Scuds toward Israel mounted throughout the fall, U.S. officials said they urgently pressed Patriots upon the Israelis. But Israeli industrialists and Defense Ministry officials working on the program objected that Patriot deliveries would divert funds from the home-grown Israeli missile program and slow its progress.
American officials said the delays that such concerns caused explains why Israel was unprotected on Wednesday when Iraq hurled eight Scuds at it.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia, the next customer in line for the Patriot, has received a dramatic demonstration of the system, for which it is expected to ante up more than half a billion dollars.
All day Monday, the day after the Patriot zapped three Scuds over Dhahran and six more over Riyadh, Saudis were flocking to the side street near Dhahran where the spent missiles crashed and collecting missile debris for souvenirs.
“I used to know lots of people who didn’t like American military here,” said one young Saudi oil company worker. “Now, they start to think highly of your Patriot missiles.”
Staff writer Kim Murphy in Saudi Arabia contributed to this story.
PATRIOT: KEY SCUD DEFENSE The Patriot, a mobile missile system, was designed to defend U.S. ground forces from air attacks. The Patriots have successfully downed at least nine Iraqi Scud missiles fired at Saudi Arabia.
The Patriot missile, first used in combat in the current crisis, is one of the world’s only workable defenses against surface-to-surface guided weapons.
Patriot missile: Missile length: 18 feet Missile diameter: 16 inches Range: About 50 miles Speed: 2,900 m.p.h. Payload: High-explosive fragmentation warhead How it works: Typically, a single missile battery has been 4 and 8 launchers and a command station. The command station also monitors the radar, which tracks missiles and planes in the area and calculates missile trajectories. The Patriot uses radar signals transmitted from the ground unit to seek out and destroy missiles and aircraft.
Launchers carry four guided missiles that intercept their targets at high and low altitudes. Missiles are powered by a single-stage solid propellant rocket engine and carry conventional warheads.
Command station: A truck in a remote area contains display screens and controls. Missiles can be fired by an operator or by computer.
Source: Jane’s Weapons Systems, AP