Patriot 'Blue-on-Blue': the plot thickens

CBS indicates US military cover-up

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CBS-11's Robert Riggs - the embedded journalist who witnessed first-hand the shambolic operations of the Patriot missile during the last Gulf War - has fuelled the continuing controversy surrounding the "Blue-on-Blue" incident, which saw the high-tech projectile bring down an RAF Tornado.

Rigg's latest report suggests that the Patriot system had persistently failed in correctly identifying hostile targets. Significantly, it reveals that there was a false missile firing incident just hours before the Tornado met its end. Furthermore, it contains evidence that Patriot's failings are being ignored, or even covered up, to protect several big-bucks contracts to supply the system to foreign governments.

On 22 March 2003, the Tornado - crewed by Flt Lt Kevin Main and Flt Lt David Williams - returned from a sortie over Iraq. The Patriot system identified the aircraft as a hostile anti-radiation missile and duly brought it down, killing both crew members.

The subsequent Ministry of Defence report (PDF) concluded that the tragedy was due to a combination of factors:

The Patriot Battery crew were monitoring for Iraqi Tactical Ballistic Missiles when [Tornado] ZG710 was tracked by their system. The symbol which appeared on their radar indicated that an Anti-Radiation Missile was coming directly towards them. The track was interrogated for IFF [identification friend or foe] but there was no response. Having met all classification criteria, the Patriot crew launched the missile, and the Tornado, mistaken for an "Anti-Radiation Missile", was engaged in self-defence. The Patriot crew had complied with extant self-defence Rules of Engagement for dealing with Anti-Radiation Missiles.

Regarding the Patriot battery's crew, the report notes:

Patriot crews are trained to react quickly, engage early and to trust the Patriot system. If the crew had delayed firing, ZG710 would probably have been reclassified as its flight path changed. The crew had about one minute to decide whether to engage. The crew were fully trained, but their training had focused on recognising generic threats rather than on those that were specific to Iraq or on identifying false alarms. The Board concluded that both Patriot firing doctrine and training were contributory factors in the accident.

It's worth comparing this analysis with Rigg's original account of what was really happening on the ground:

This was like a bad science fiction movie in which the computer starts creating false targets. And you have the operators of the system wondering is this a figment of a computer's imagination or is this real.

They were seeing what were called spurious targets that were identified as incoming tactical ballistic missiles. Sometimes, they didn't exist at all in time and space. Other times, they were identifying friendly U.S. aircraft as incoming TBMs.

We were in one of the command posts. And I walked in and all the operators and officers are focused intently on their screens. And so you know something's going on here. And suddenly the door flies open, and a Raytheon tech representative runs in and says, 'Don't shoot! Don't shoot!' Well, that got our attention real quick.

In the end, though, it was the Patriot system itself - and not the crews - which were the root cause of the anarchy, as CBS now reveals:

Spurious "ghost" missile tracks showed up on Patriot Missile battery radars hundreds of times before and during the invasion, causing chaos and confusion as soldiers struggled to determine the real from the false.

Soldiers operating the multi-billion systems had only malfunctioning cell phones with which to communicate with other batteries in often-futile efforts to learn whether targets were real. CBS-11's embedded reporter, Robert Riggs, witnessed periods in which missile battery personnel had no communications with air controllers.

Military sources now suggest that the problem of ghost tracks has still not be resolved. According to CBS: "During training conducted in Yuma, Arizona three months ago the Patriot radar continued to produce false targets in exercises against Marine aircraft."

Joseph Cirincione, a former congressional investigator who led an inquiry of the Patriot's performance during the first Gulf War, said: "This is inexcusable that this problem has not been fixed." He concludes that "military officials are loath to say anything that might threaten Raytheon's sales of the system abroad".

Despite CBS's dogged pursuit of the facts, the US Army has yet to acknowledge any problem with the Patriot system. When confronted with the latest evidence, Patriot manufacturer Raytheon referred CBS to the Army, which declined to comment.

CBS has, nevertheless, obtained declassified material which - although heavily censored - makes reference to the false firing incident which occurred just 12 hours before the Tornado was downed, during which a Patriot battery "auto engaged a spurious track. Missile fired before they could override".

Victoria Samson of the Center For Defense Information - described as "an independent defense department watchdog group" - is quoted as saying that the Army is "trying to blame the friendly fire incidents on anything but the Patriot missile defense system. The technology seems to be sacrosanct. The people not so much."

And the reasons for this are simple enough, according to Cirincione. There are "billions of dollars on the line in overseas sales. The last thing you want to do is tell Saudi Arabia or Taiwan or Japan that there is something wrong with the system." ®

Related links

Ministry of Defence Military Aircraft Accident Summary for Royal Air Force Tornado GR MK4A ZG710 (PDF)
Patriot overview
Patriot specs
Lockheed Martin

Related stories

Patriot missile: friend or foe?
'System error' downed RAF Tornado

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