The Patriot Gulf missile 'didn't work'
By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 1/13/2001
WASHINGTON - Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, supporting a decade of questions about the Patriot missile's performance, said Raytheon Co.'s famous antimissile system failed to work in the Persian Gulf War.
Speaking at a breakfast with reporters Thursday, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Patriot's combat debut in the gulf region, Cohen cited the weapon's failures when advocating increased Pentagon funding for an antimissile shield.
Confronted in the winter of 1991 by the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Israel, Cohen said, ''the Patriot didn't work.''
The remark by Cohen, the highest-ranking government official to say the Patriot failed, was a blow to Lexington-based Raytheon's longstanding defense of the missile's performance. His comments also could become part of the renewed debate over antimissile technology, with President-elect George W. Bush vowing to build and deploy an antimissile shield.
The defense secretary offered no further details. His blunt appraisal conflicts with the official US Army position, which maintains that the Patriot had a 70 percent success rate against the Scuds launched at Saudi Arabia and a 40 percent success rate against those fired at Israel, said Dave Shea, a spokesman for Raytheon.
Shea said yesterday that ''after extensive analysis, the Army has steadfastly maintained that the Patriot's performance during the Gulf War was excellent.''
Shea referred questions to an Army spokeswoman, who declined to comment and passed further inquiries to a Pentagon public relations officer, who did not return phone calls.
Shea noted that Raytheon has worked hard in the past decade to improve the Patriot's performance. ''Today's Patriot represents the one in the Gulf War in name only,'' he said.
The Patriot remains a key element of the US military arsenal, and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue for Raytheon, which has sold the system to such countries as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. A contract to upgrade existing Patriots was worth $47 million in the last fiscal year. The next generation of the Patriot is being developed by Lockheed-Martin Corp.
The Army and Raytheon have carried on a spirited defense of the Patriot's performance in the decade since the Gulf War, when the defense contractor originally said 90 percent of the Scud warheads had been destroyed by the missile.
Even after the Army revised its estimates downward, Raytheon continued to launch rhetorical salvos upon MIT professor Theodore Postol and others who have criticized the missile, and a debate raged for years.
The Patriot's critics said yesterday that Cohen's statement was surprising for its candor, but not for its content. Cohen was simply stating what US and Israeli scientists have long concluded, said Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
''No one has ever been that honest,'' said Cirincione, when informed of Cohen's remarks. ''I have never heard a senior defense official state it so categorically. ... They have never been able to acknowledge what Secretary Cohen did, that ultimately it didn't work at all.''
''I'm glad that the secretary of defense has figured out Patriot didn't work,'' Postol said yesterday. ''It would be nice if he forced the Army to revise its false estimates.''
The Patriot made its debut on Jan. 17, 1991, and was immediately hailed as a spectacular success by US officials, led by President George H.W. Bush, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Generals Colin L. Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf. American television audiences were entranced by news videos of the Patriots streaking skyward and exploding in the night sky.
''The Patriot's success, of course, is known to everyone. It's 100 percent - so far. Of 33 [Scuds] engaged, there have been 33 destroyed,'' Schwarzkopf said during the war.
''Forty-one Scuds engaged, 42 intercepted. Thank God for the Patriot missile!'' then-President Bush told a cheering crowd at the Raytheon plant in Andover.
Though indisputably a great propaganda tool, the Patriot's tactical weaknesses became apparent after the war. The Army revised its success rate downward after critics like Postol analyzed the news videotapes and other available data and concluded that the Patriots had been easily fooled by fragments of the Scud missiles that arrived alongside the warheads.
A US General Accounting Office study suggested that the Patriot's success rate may have been no better than 9 percent. The Congressional Research Service said there was conclusive proof of only one destroyed Scud warhead. Israeli analysts reached similar conclusions.
In 1992, former defense secretary William Perry told a congressional committee that Patriot was ''not an effective antiballistic missile system'' because it was too easily confused by countermeasures.
But Raytheon stuck by its claims: ''Patriot did work, and it worked well,'' the head of the company's missile systems said in 1994.
Postol thinks the Patriots never hit a Scud.
''There is no evidence of any destruction of any Scud warheads'' on the videotapes from the war, he said yesterday. ''Maybe, by accident, the system destroyed a warhead'' in an engagement not captured on film, he said.
Cohen brought up the Patriot's failures Thursday while defending the need for continued investment in antimissile technology.
With continued research and development, Cohen said, it will be possible to construct an antimissile shield that will protect US cities from accidental nuclear missile launches or desperation attacks by rogue nuclear states, and so insulate American policy makers from nuclear blackmail.
''What seemed impossible today will be available tomorrow,'' said Cohen, expressing his faith in technology. He described the failures of recent antimissile tests as ''simple plumbing failures'' that will be overcome by further research and development.
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