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Patriot Missile Kills Exaggerated, Congress Is Told

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Patriot missile, a star of the Persian Gulf War that since has been tarnished by criticism, may have destroyed only one of the 90 Scud missiles Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel, experts told Congress Tuesday.

In testimony before the House Government Operations Committee, the General Accounting Office--the investigative arm of Congress--said that the Army could not adequately document its claims that the Patriot intercepted 80% of the Scuds fired at Saudi Arabia and 50% of those aimed at Israel.

Steve Hildreth, an expert for the Congressional Research Service, added that by the Army’s own methodology the Patriot intercepted and destroyed the actual warhead of only a single Scud missile.

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Tuesday’s hearings, coming after months of controversy, cast further doubt on the vaunted ability of the Patriot to defend troops and populations against the missiles that are proliferating throughout the Third World. It also raised questions about the Army’s ability to investigate the performance of one of its own weapons systems.

Iraq’s Scuds were regularly seen exploding in flight after Patriot missiles were shot aloft to intercept them. But independent experts now believe that many of those missiles, which were crudely welded together, actually broke up during flight. In those cases where the Patriots intercepted the Scuds, they regularly failed to hit the warhead, leaving the missile’s most deadly component to fall intact to the ground.

Army Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, defended the Patriot on Tuesday, calling it “a terrific success story, tactically, psychologically and politically,” which “exceeded our expectations.”

But Garner acknowledged that in response to congressional inquiries the Army has lowered its assessments of the Patriot’s successes. The Patriots were successful against more than 70% of the Scuds Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia during the conflict and more than 40% of those fired at Israel, Garner told the panel.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee investigating the Patriot’s performance, called on Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to order an independent evaluation of the Army’s analysis “by a group that does not have an interest in the outcome.”

Conyers said that Cheney has yet to respond.

“In future conflicts, we could unnecessarily endanger soldiers’ lives if we deploy the Patriot based on overly optimistic assessments of its capabilities,” said Conyers. “If American soldiers think that they can depend on Patriot battalions destroying nine out of 10 enemy missiles, when the actual defense capability may be closer to one out of 50, it would be a disaster. If we know that, but refuse to admit it, then the offense is criminal.”

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