“Now, with remarkable technological advances like the Patriot missile, we can defend against ballistic missile attacks aimed at innocent civilians.” President George H.W. Bush made this statement at his State of the Union address on January 29, 1991 – a mere 28 days before the Patriot missile system failed to engage an enemy SCUD missile factoring a U.S. Army base located in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The tragic failure resulted in the loss of 28 U.S. Army soldiers, with another 98 reported as being injured.
Prior to February 25, 1991, the Patriot missile system was a single-sector air defense system built and developed to engage Russian and Warsaw Pact aircraft. Patriot was delivered to the U.S. Army in 1981 and tested out of multiple operational exercises with great success against Russian style aircraft. The first batteries were deployed under the 32d Army Air Defense Command to Europe in 1984 bringing top-of-the-line point Air Defense assets to theater during the Cold War. Doctrinally, the American Patriot force was well prepared to defend against an echeloned attack from the expected Russian air avenue of approach. Advances in the strategic employment of the Patriot missile system grew the confidence of the American public, leaders, and the U.S. Army resulting in rapid procurement of improved capabilities. Before the Iraqi invasion into Kuwait, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., U.S. CENTCOM Commander, ran multiple war-games and realized a massive gap in capability. Saddam’s arsenal contained the SS-1C SCUD B which had a larger range than the most capable aircraft. In 1986, with a successful test against simulated ballistic missiles at White Sands Missile Range, the pursuit of moving the Patriot missile system from an air defense asset to a missile intercept system was in motion. General Schwarzkopf decided to place full-faith into the Patriot missile system as the first missile defense system in history with the ability to shoot a bullet with a bullet.
With assurance, Patriot was deployed to Saudi Arabia to provide defensive fire in support of coalition forces supporting Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, months late in Israel and Turkey, and ultimately in support of Operation Desert Shield. Patriot was the embodiment of a technologically advanced, high-end, state-of-the art defense system that represented deterrence through strength. In the early 1990’s, Ballistic Missile Defense was a new concept to the world and the United States led the world by being the first to employ Patriot as a ballistic missile defense system. This action was remarkable in the way Patriot was transformed from an Air Defense system into Ballistic Missile Defense System to defend against the evolving Iraqi ballistic missile threat. January 18th, 1991 – U.S. Army Patriot operators successfully intercepted and destroyed an Iraqi SS-1C SCUD B in Saudi Arabia. This intercept was momentous as it was the first successful engagement by an Air Defense system ever in combat history. Many successful engagements of Iraqi SS-1C SCUDs followed, leaving no doubt to the efficacy of Patriot as a ballistic missile defense system.
The nation’s and the Army’s trust was put into the Patriot missile system to defend the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force’s most critical power projection capabilities. The airfields at Dhahran held the Army’s main Command Post to support offensive operations out of Saudi Arabia. After the initial successful intercept of an Iraqi SS-1C SCUD B in CENTCOM Patriot was tested in combat in the final days of Operation Desert Storm, this time with a different outcome. The impact of the Iraqi SS-1C SCUD B on Dhahran, Saudi Arabia exposed critical flaws in the system’s software. Days later government operations chairman, John Conyers, testified before congress that “We thought the Patriot missile was perfect. We were wrong. Ironically, the more information we have, the less successful the Patriot seems.” On the 30 year anniversary of that dreadful day, MDAA pulls lessons learned from the incident to better educate the war-fighter and advocate for continuous modernization, testing, and alignment of Air and Missile defenses for the joint-force.
The U.S. Army seemingly overlooked initial capabilities with Patriot by pushing it to what it “could do” rather than what it was “designed to do.” In 1991, Patriot was intended to intercept threats with a linear, limited-maneuver flight path, rather than theater ballistic missiles that maintain a parabolic flight profile and have maneuvering capability. During Desert Storm, the Patriot Air Defense system was deemed the “SCUD busters” in name and effect.
The expeditious update of the Patriot missile inventory shows the intent to develop a mobile surface-to-air missile defense system, however was improperly tested and operationalized. Patriot’s original “standard” missile was meant solely to intercept jamming targets, fixed-wing, and rotary-wing aircraft. The need for a missile that could intercept a ballistic missile was identified in 1986 and resulted in the fielding of the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) – 1 missile. The PAC-1 was successful in intercepting rudimentary parabolic targets in a field test, however the guidance of the missile required a software upgrade to achieve near perfect probability of kill. Shortly after PAC-1 fielding, an improved PAC-2 missile that better pinpointed intercept at the warhead of enemy ballistic missiles was developed, however only three total PAC-2 missiles made it to the U.S. Army’s operational force.
There is no room for luck or assumptions in successful ballistic missile intercepts. On February 11, 1991, two weeks prior to the impact at Dhahran, Israeli Patriot operators reported an issue where the Patriot AN/MPQ-53 phased array radar’s tracking capability was slowed, which brought forth urgent concern of the Patriot’s cueing, tracking, identification and weapons engagement ability. The Israeli operators could not locate the correct position, in time and space, of an incoming ballistic missile. The Israeli Patriot crews reported that this tracking issue only occurred after the Patriot system was continuously operating for over 8 hours. A software update that addressed the problem of continuous operations was fielded on February 21st, 1991, but Patriot users were notified that a subsequent software update was needed, however moved slow and was planned to be installed at a later date. The highly trained and confident U.S. Patriot operators had intelligence of an impending missile attack at Dhahran. The urgency of critical software upgrades were not passed to the U.S. Patriot units from the Israelis or the Patriot Project Office.
February 25, 1991 was the last day of the Gulf War where large scale combat operations took place. The Iraqi SS-1C SCUD B missile was fired and targeted the airfields at Dhahran, where six U.S. Patriot batteries were positioned to defend against such an attack. A forward radar tracked the Iraqi SCUD and pushed an early warning track over the joint-tactical data link to the U.S Patriot firing units. One U.S. Patriot battery detected the SCUD on the local radar, but could not confirm it was an incoming SCUD missile due to the known software timing issue. The U.S. Patriot operators had a decision to make and could not engage a non-confirmed air track. In the early morning, the Iraqi SS-1C SCUD B missile impacted Dhahran, triggering a mass casualty scenario in the final days of the Gulf War. Three days later, on February 28th, President George H.W. Bush announced the successful liberation of Kuwait and that a ceasefire had been agreed upon.
The leaker at Dhahran elicits the following key lessons learned:
- Effective shot doctrine must be enabled by the maximum number of interceptors.
- Iraqi SCUDS were unintentionally falling apart mid-flight – causing U.S. Patriot to engage non-warhead tracks.
- Patriot’s intended purpose was as an Air Defense system, not a missile defense system. While, combat exercises took place at White Sands Missile Range, the test continued during combat operations in Saudi Arabia.
- Patriot radars were not fielded critical equipment to combat the elements of a desert environment to eliminate false tracks.
- Move critical requirements with urgency– software upgrade was sent from MacGuire Air Force Base on February 23rd, arrived in Riyadh on February 24th, and reached Dhahran on February 26th, one day late.
- Information sharing of technical issues and lessons learned must be expedited to allies and Project Offices with speed and efficiency.
- Enemy ballistic missiles are constantly procuring cost-effective variants, the U.S. Army must anticipate and stay ahead of emerging threats.
- The most capable interceptors must be allocated to units prior to theater entry and available for reload.
Current day, the Patriot Air and Missile Defense system is one of the most capable systems in the world. Amongst many advancements and upgrades in partnership with industry, the U.S. Army continually applies operational knowledge, techniques and procedures to maximize the Patriot Air and Missile defense system’s capabilities. Warfighters continue to hone the system’s effectiveness through tactical procedures, resulting in expeditionary capability and lethal maneuvers.
Harnessing these lessons learned from the leaker at Dhahran, we reflect and study how the 28 lives lost on February 25th, 1991 could have been prevented. The war-fighter in combat should be our top priority, as we must respect those willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the advancement of our country’s interests. Our nation’s leadership cannot be complacent in supporting the war-fighter with speed and efficiency.
As we turn to the future, we recognize that our adversaries are continuously producing cost-effective variants to fight our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in an operational environment with proliferating complexity. We expect the best from the war-fighter and they will give their best. We must give the war-fighter the best resources to defend strategic interests and international civilian populations that are vulnerable to missile attack.
On this day, 30 years later, MDAA mourns the 28 Soldiers who perished and carry their legacy forward to continue the fight for what is right.