Hitting a bullet with a bullet

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Hitting a bullet with a bullet is far from easy, as the history of ballistic missile defense has demonstrated, but the US had some success in the Gulf War:

The Gulf War story is overwhelmingly one of Coalition military and technological success, with one notable exception: the campaign against Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles. Initially this aspect of the war looked to be a lopsided contest pitting Iraq’s outdated missiles against the Coalition’s overwhelmingly superior technology and complete air dominance. But this is not how events unfolded. Despite using nearly every type aircraft in the Coalition’s considerable air fleet against the Scuds, in the words of one participant and student of this campaign, there was “scant evidence of success.” The Iraqis effectively used their Scuds to frustrate the Coalition, seize the initiative, and to apply great political and psychological pressure that had the potential to unravel the alliance. In this way, the Scud campaign was the high point for the Iraqis and low point for the Coalition airmen.

From the outset the reader should realize that the Gulf War was neither the first nor the largest ballistic missile war. These distinctions belong to the German V-2 missile campaign that rained destruction on Allied cities during World War II. The V-weapons campaign was much larger in numbers and much more destructive, albeit shorter in range, than the Iraqi missile offensive. However both campaigns had similar limitations (poor accuracy and small conventional warheads) and were mainly political and psychological in their intent and impact. Forty-five years separated the two operations, but the severe problems, frustrations, and failures experienced by the Allies while defending against German missiles, despite expending tremendous resources, were similar to those encountered by Coalition airmen during the Gulf War. One major difference between the two campaigns was that in the more recent war is that the defenders had an active ground-based defense.

Scud is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) code word for a Soviet surface-to-surface ballistic missile that evolved from the German V-2. It is little improved over the German missile, primarily having a longer range, somewhat better accuracy, but carrying a smaller payload. The Soviets tested the Scud A in April 1953 and deployed it in 1955. Scud B was an improved version that extended the missile’s range from 180km to 300km, and enhanced its accuracy from 4,000 to 1,000 meters CEP but carried only half the 989kg warhead of the “A.” ” It was first launched in 1957. A key feature of this type missile was its mobility, made possible by its wheeled chassis that served as a transporter, erector, and launcher (TEL). In 1961 the Soviets began exporting the Scud A to their Warsaw allies and then in 1973 shipped the first Scud B to Egypt, and later to a number of other middle east countries, including Iraq.


Casualties were far lower than estimated. The Israelis suffered only two direct deaths from the Scuds, and another eleven indirectly, four from heart attacks and seven 95 suffocating in their gas masks. In addition, probably 12 Saudis were killed and 121 wounded. There were also American casualties. On 26 February a Scud hit a Dhahran warehouse being used as a billet by about 127 American troops, killing 28 and wounding 97 others. This one Scud accounted for 21 percent of the US personnel killed during the Q7 war, and 40 percent of the wounded. A number of factors explain this incident. Apparently one Patriot battery was shut down for maintenance and another had cumulative computer timing problems. Another factor was just plain bad luck. The Scud warhead not only hit the warehouse, but unlike so many others, it remained intact, and detonated. Conversely, one Scud impacted in Al Jubail Harbor about 130 yards from the USS Tarawa and seven other ships moored next to a pier that was heavily laden with 5,000 tons of artillery ammunition. The missile’s warhead did not explode. These are the fortunes of war. Thus, the overall death rate was less than one killed per missile fired.

The Scuds lacked numbers, warhead size, and accuracy to be militarily significant. But General Norman Schwarzkopf’s continued restatement of these facts not only missed the point, it was politically dangerous. The general’s words indicated to the Israelis a lack of America’s concern, and encouraged Israeli counteraction. Scuds had a great psychological and political impact, especially as they were coupled with the threat of poison gas. The Israelis were not about to stand by as Iraqi missiles showered their cities with death and destruction. If they intervened, however, the carefully constructed Coalition could quickly unravel, which, of course, was what the Iraqis intended.100 In sharp contrast to the field commander, the top American leadership, specifically Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman, General Colin Powell, saw keeping Israel out of the war as the number one priority and the Scuds as the number one problem.

Although the Israelis rejected American aid before the shooting started, the first Scud impact changed everything. The Israelis quickly requested both American Patriot missile assistance and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes to allow their aircraft to strike Iraqi targets without tangling with Coalition aircraft. The US quickly agreed to the first, but refused the second. However, the decision makers realized that the Scud menace had to be contained to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. One important element in this effort was the Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM).


The Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile formed the last line of active defense against the Scuds. The US was able to airlift 32 Patriot missiles to Israel within 17 hours and get them operational within three days. Patriot deployment to the Gulf eventually consisted of seven batteries to Israel, 21 to Saudi Arabia, and four to Turkey.

Crucial to the active BMD was early warning provided by strategic satellites. Although American Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were designed to give warning of ICBM launches, they demonstrated the ability to track the lower flying, cooler, short range, tactical ballistic missiles, as demonstrated against hundreds of tactical ballistic missiles during their tests and in two Mid-Eastern wars.111 Before the shooting started in the Gulf War, two young captains at Strategic Air Command (SAC), John Rittinghouse and J.D. Broyles, worked out a system that coordinated information from the satellites, routed it through three widely located headquarters (SAC, Space Command, and Central Command), and passed it along to the user in the field. While the satellite did not precisely indicate either the location of launch or anticipated point of impact, it did give general information. The bottleneck was the communications, nevertheless, the juryrigged system gave a few minutes’ warning to both the defending Patriot crews and people in the target area. During the war, the satellites detected all 88 launches.

One of the main controversies of the war centered on the effectiveness of the Patriot against the Scud, or more precisely, how many Patriots hit Scuds. Of the 88 Scuds launched, 53 flew within the area of Patriot coverage. The defenders engaged most of these, 46 to 52 according to secondary accounts, with 158 Patriot missiles. Schwarzkopf initially claimed 100 percent Patriot success. After the war the manufacturer boasted of 89 percent success over Saudi Arabia and 44 percent over Israel, then in December 1991 the Army asserted 80 percent and 50 percent success, respectively. The next April the official success claims were further reduced to 70 and 40 percent in the two areas.


This misses the main point: regardless of the exact interception figures, Patriots proved very effective. Just as the Scuds were primarily a psychological weapon, so too were the Patriots. They provided great theater, with live videos of fiery launches, smoke trails, and aerial fireworks made more vivid with a dark, night background that had a positive impact on civilians and decision makers in the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. (There is no indication that any Iraqis saw this very visible performance, and if so, what impact it had on them.) The situation was manageable for the defenders as long as the Scud attacks were limited in number, inaccurate, and killed few people. Missile warning protected civilians from death and injury, while active missile defenses bolstered morale. The Patriots were an important factor in keeping Israel out of the war.


  1. Redan says:

    Personal experience: On 14 February 1991 Iraq launched a Scud toward KKMC; subject Scud was intercepted by Patriot(s) and damaged or partially destroyed over Hafar Al-Batin — where I was.

    My first TBI.

    KKMC: King Khalid Military City
    TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury

  2. Redan says:

    Sorry, that should be Scuds, plural, or a Scud barrage, either is correct.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    For some reason I expected this.

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