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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Patriot missile unit stays on target
Ryan Dilley
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, Camp Cobra

Aside from the "friendly-fire" destruction of an RAF jet, the efficiency of the Patriot batteries - particularly in bringing down Iraqi missiles heading for Kuwait - has been one of the success stories of the US-led war so far.

The people with the Patriots

The high pyramid of sand heaped up behind the Patriot missile launcher is scorched and blackened.

"You wouldn't want to be anywhere near here when it goes off. It certainly roasts some marshmallows," says Specialist Eric Brugman, a member of the "hot team" charged with keeping the anti-missile defences at Camp Cobra at constant readiness.

The sand banks are supposed to protect the battery personnel from the blast as the Patriots burst from their launch pods and begin accelerating to three times the speed of sound.

Specialist Brugman points to a concrete slab: "It'll pick that up and throw it around." It is no surprise then, that the crews take cover in sandbagged bunkers several hundred feet away during firing.

Kuwaiti fears

Patriot interceptor missiles from this base - in the desert north of Kuwait City - have been shot at incoming projectiles launched from Iraq.

The success with which the Camp Cobra battery destroyed these explosive-packed Iraqi rockets has undoubtedly saved lives, civilian and military.

Battery commander Captain Derek Johnson
The Patriot isn't just an anti-missile weapon, it can shoot down anything that flies
Captain Derek Johnson

"My brother-in-law is fighting out here and I know he's glad to have me protecting him from Iraqi missiles," says Specialist Brugman.

And so far, such confidence seems to have been borne out by the performance of the Patriot batteries.

"We're eight for eight," one officer says proudly. "The Iraqis have shot 12 missiles. One crashed in Iraq, one fell harmlessly in the Kuwaiti desert, two went in the sea and Patriots got the rest."

A 13th missile - an anti-ship projectile was lobbed at Kuwait City on Saturday, damaging a pier and spraying a shopping centre with debris - skimmed the sea. It was too low to be picked up by defensive radar, but also too low to threaten inland targets.

The three Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles which fell inside Kuwaiti territory - while injuring no one - caused consternation among the emirate's civilian population.

They feared the Patriot system was not as infallible as they had been led to believe, and that Saddam Hussein might be able to sneak a chemical warhead passed the shield after all.


Allowing the three rockets to fall was intentional, says Lieutenant Clifton Schmitt, sitting in front of a bank of radar screens and panels of launch buttons inside the battery's control vehicle.

"I saw one of those missiles on my screen, it was the first real one I'd ever seen.

"It was travelling pretty fast and we were ready to shoot it down, but in a couple of seconds we knew it was going to fall in an uninhabited area. If it's going to land in the sea or desert there's no point in wasting money or munitions on it."

If my family was living in downtown Kuwait City, I'd be happy that these Patriots would protect them
Warrant Officer Reid Evans

That the Patriot launchers across Kuwait say they have hit every Iraqi missile they have targeted is a great improvement on the accuracy record of the system during the last Gulf War.

The Pentagon made great claims for the Patriot system in 1991, suggesting that more than two-thirds of incoming Iraqi Scuds were downed.

A subsequent Congressional hearing in Washington put the figure closer to 10%, with one expert witness from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggesting a success rate of "possibly even zero".

Certainly the Patriots failed to prevent a Scud hitting a US base in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers.

Camp Cobra's Warrant Officer Reid Evans also manned a Patriot launcher back in 1991 and is sure he witnessed Scuds being destroyed, but says recent updates to the Patriot have vastly improved reliability.

Soldier at control panel
Ready to unleash the Patriot

"If my family was living in downtown Kuwait City, I'd be happy that these Patriots would protect them. This system has come a long way since 1991."

Warrant Officer Evans says that whereas the original Patriot would explode only in the proximity of its target - perhaps leaving large chunks to plummet earthwards intact - the latest models slam right into an incoming threat, neutralising it more effectively.

Also resolved, according to Warrant Officer Evans, are the radar glitches which in 1991 caused Patriot batteries to launch up to 24 missiles at what later turned out to be so-called "phantom" targets.

'Worse nightmare'

However, the Patriot's image has been badly tarnished by the "friendly fire" attack on an RAF Tornado jet, which killed two British airmen in the war's first week.

While the fatal error did not involve missiles from Camp Cobra, the battery discourages questions about the incident - which is still being investigated by the US military.

However, the Patriot crews here make it clear, discreetly, that committing such a "friendly fire" mistake is their worse nightmare.

"The Patriot isn't just an anti-missile weapon, it can shoot down anything that flies," says battery commander Captain Derek Johnson.

"Missiles are easy to spot, easy to identify, and the rules of engagement are simple - just fire. It's different with aircraft threats."

Patriot batteries are always on the lookout for Iraqi warplanes and unmanned drones, but have an array of procedures to identify friend from foe before opening fire.

As well as transmitting devices carried in US and UK aircraft which alert Patriot launchers to their peaceful intentions, friendly aeroplanes also fly in special safe channels and behave in a different way than would an attacking Iraqi bomber.

Private First Class Daniel Strickland has what he says is "the most important job". He pushes the button which unleashes the Patriots.

"If it's a missile coming in, I wouldn't hesitate. But with an airborne threat, you have to remember you're about to take a human life.

"We have to be absolutely sure whether it's friend or foe."


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