In 1991, during the early days of Operation Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush stood before a group of workers at the Raytheon plant and heralded the success of the U.S. military's new air missile-defense system. "Forty-two Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted. Thank God for the Patriot missile," he declared to the men and women who manufactured the missiles.
Almost exactly a decade later, in the final days of the Clinton administration, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen frankly admitted that in fact "the Patriot didn't work." Between these two evaluations is a storm of controversy over the effectiveness of the Patriot missile system.
The military and Raytheon, the missile's Massachusetts-based manufacturer, officially set the Patriot's success rate at 70 percent for Scuds launched at Saudi Arabia and 40 percent for those launched at Israel.
However, the Israelis say that no more than 2 percent of the Scuds launched at their country were intercepted, and the General Accounting Office, which conducted its own study, estimates overall effectiveness at 9 percent.
Today in Kuwait, air defense batteries dot the northern desert, complete with what military and Raytheon officials say are more accurate and efficient Patriot systems.
New ‘Hit-to-Kill’ Technology
Unlike the first generation of missiles, which could only explode near their target and send it off course, the latest Patriot, the PAC-3, makes a direct and destructive hit. According to one battery commander, Capt. Eric Everts, this eliminates the greatest problem that the nascent system had in 1991.
"If it throws [a missile] off target there's a possibility that the warhead, whether it's conventional or holds weapons of mass destruction, it will still hit the ground and disperse somewhere," the commander told ABCNEWS in an interview at his battery near the Iraqi border.
In addition to the new "hit-to-kill" technology, the PAC-3 is lighter and narrower than its older brother, the PAC-2. One launcher capable of holding four PAC-2 missiles can hold up to 16 PAC-3 missiles.
This reduces the amount of time that soldiers have to spend reloading canisters, the most vulnerable moment for any Patriot missile battery. The missiles themselves are not the only element of the system that has improved.
A More Mobile Force
Unlike the Patriot batteries that remained stationary during Operation Desert Storm, the units in the Kuwaiti desert today will actually move over the border with front line troops.
"We have done a lot of training in the last 10 years on moving the system, especially in the last two years as far as making it a much more mobile force," said launcher platoon Sgt. James Kent.
Twelve years ago, as a private, Kent fought with a Patriot unit in Desert Storm. Now instead of filling sandbags, he is in charge of the entire launching platoon in his battery. Kent proudly points out that "this will be the first time in history that this system has deployed with forces on the move in the forward area."
The likelihood of moving with front line soldiers, although illustrative of improvements in the system, has made some Patriot battery soldiers nervous.
"The only thing I have worries about is the [Iraqi] ground forces," said Sgt. Christopher Cardina. "[Patriot units] don't conduct that much training on ground forces like infantry and other types of personnel do."
Fellow Patriot soldier specialist Michael Taborsky concurred: "We're going to roll forward when all this stuff kicks off and the concerns are that not only do we have to become Patriot soldiers, we understand we are going to have to become ground troops if anything happens."
Aware of potential difficulties, the military has added infantry troops to minimize the batteries' vulnerability.
As a war with Iraq looms closer, the fear of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launching chemical-laced Scuds grows, and these Patriot missile units prepare to have the world once again critique the effectiveness of their controversial air-defense system.
But as anyone will tell you, from the privates to the colonels, rather than have a chance to settle a controversy, they hope successful American airstrikes will keep them from having to launch at all.