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When Patriots failed, Gulf War troops had little warning

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 4:23 p.m.

Lt. Paul Lombardi followed orders on Feb. 25, 1991, the night an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into the barracks housing Greensburg's 14th Quartermaster Detachment.

When an air raid alarm sounded, Lombardi stayed inside the makeshift building that was the unit's temporary home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in what would be the final hours of the Persian Gulf War.

'Our direction was to seek shelter from an airborne burst,' said Lombardi, formerly of Monaca, Beaver County. 'And that's where it hit.'

Soldiers were told that a Patriot missile would intercept incoming Scuds in the air, raining debris on the ground. They would be safe inside the building.

They weren't.

The makeshift barracks was located in Al Khobar, a suburb of Dhahran. The building was located behind a shopping center between a supermarket and a toy store.

A nearby Patriot missile battery never detected the incoming Scud. The missile crashed through the roof, detonating into the concrete floor. It killed 28 soldiers and wounded 98.

Lombardi had taken command of the 14th just 10 days earlier. Now 36 and a major on active duty in Atlanta, Ga., he considers the Patriot a success. The Patriot was adapted well to intercept the Scuds, he said.

Faceoff in the desert

The Gulf War battle between the Patriot and Scud missiles was high-tech versus low-tech. The Patriot is a sophisticated, computerized, radar-tracking missile that uses highly complex software to track and then shoot down incoming enemy missiles.

The Russian-made Scuds are obsolete but dangerous point-and-shoot weapons. Their accuracy was erratic because the weight of their warheads sometimes made them plummet out of trajectory before they reached their intended targets.

According to studies, the Scud's warhead, which consisted of TNT and aluminum, often separated from the body of the missile. When the warhead struck a target, the aluminum made the warhead more explosive.

After-action reports claim that between Jan. 18 and Feb. 26, 1991, Iraq fired 46 Scuds against Saudi Arabia and 40 at Israel. Reports differ regarding the number of people killed and wounded by the missiles.
After the war ended, Lombardi refused to join a wrongful death lawsuit filed by families of survivors who claimed the Patriot failed. He believed the lapse in Dhahran was a single failure among a string of successful Patriot intercepts.

'The fact that it wasn't 100 percent able to save everybody, I don't feel that was the fault of the manufacturer,' Lombardi said.

The war has been over for a decade, but the debate continues over the Patriot's effectiveness.

Why did a sophisticated U.S. missile fail to protect the Army reserve water purification unit from a single, obsolete Iraqi missile in the war's waning hours•

Last month, outgoing Defense Secretary William Cohen bluntly admitted the Patriot was a failure. 'The Patriot didn't work,' said Cohen on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the start of the war to liberate Kuwait.

Raytheon in Boston, the maker of the missile, counters that the Patriot had a success rate of 70 percent against Scud missiles fired at Saudi Arabia.

In a post-war study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, investigators said there was 'strong evidence' the Patriot intercepted only four of 11 Scuds.

Another report by the Congressional Research Service, an investigative arm of Congress, said the Patriots destroyed only one Scud. It said the military placed too much confidence in the system's reliability.

So what went wrong•

The cause may be found in a report of the investigation compiled by the Department of the Army Review Team, known by the military acronym DART.

That report states:

  • On the night of the attack, a U.S. spy satellite detected the infrared emissions from a missile plume in southern Iraq, indicating a missile launch. American forces in Saudi Arabia were alerted that a Scud attack was imminent.

  • The early-warning satellite transmitted the data to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Missile Warning Center in Wyoming. Officials in Cheyenne relayed the message by satellite telephone to the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Saudi Arabia.

    This was the first time the Patriot had been deployed in combat since it was developed in the early 1980s. The radar on the missile batteries ringing the giant air base at Dhahran began tracking the Scud's trajectory.

    The Scud was detected by other Patriot batteries deployed to protect allied forces in the region, including the Dhahran area. But the missile never appeared on the radar screens of A Battery, which protected the area where the 14th Quartermaster's barracks were located.

  • As the Scud hurtled through the air at 4,000 mph, F Battery detected the missile on its radar and tracked the missile for 30 seconds until it flew over its position, said Lt. Kris Anderberg, the battery's tactical control officer.

  • E Battery then picked up the track until the Scud bypassed its location. D Battery reported tracking the missile until it flew over its area. C battery did not detect the missile. Given its location, it was unlikely to do so, the report said. Exact locations and distances are blacked out in the report because of security concerns.

    B Battery was out of operation. It was down for maintenance.

  • A Battery, referred to as Alpha in the DART report, was assigned to protect the airbase at Dhahran. It never saw the missile on its radar.

    Lt. Gerald Dailey and Spec. 4 Samuel Luse at Alpha Battery listened to radio reports of the other batteries tracking the missile and waited for it to appear on their radar screen.

    Luse said he didn't see anything on radar for 90 seconds into the alert. His console indicated radar was tracking 'air breathers' - jet aircraft - and not a missile.

    'I then monitored my screen without seeing anything until we received the all clear,' Luse said.

    U.S. Army Major Larry Hollars, who was assigned to Alpha Battery, told investigators he 'felt something was wrong' when Battery A didn't launch a missile to intercept the Scud.

    'Alpha Battery operators replied that all crew drill procedures were executed and their system was ready to take the engagement, but the target never presented itself,' Hollars told the review team.

    Israel, which had been given Patriots to protect itself against Scud attacks, alerted the United States about a software problem based on its tracking analysis from missiles fired from Iraq into Israel.

    Software engineers in the United States found the problem buried deep in the computer programs that ran the missile's computer system.

    After the Patriot's radar system locks onto an incoming missile, computers calculate when the Patriots should fire to intercept the Scuds. Investigators also learned that the longer a computer was in operation, the more prone it became to problems.

    A Battery had been up and running for four continuous days and it should have been shut down and its internal workings recalibrated. But since the ground war against Iraq was in full swing, the battery was on constant alert against Iraqi attacks.

    A report of the investigation said A Battery's computer software was off one-third of a second, or 360,000 microseconds.

    Engineers in the United States corrected the problem by creating a new version of the software and shipping it to the Gulf. It arrived in Dhahran a day after the attack, too late to protect the 14th Quartermaster Detachment.


    Some of the reservists never had a chance. The siren went off shortly before the Scud hit, but witnesses said it gave them only about 30 seconds of warning.

    'I think it was about a minute,' Lombardi recalled. 'As the commander, I looked around to see who was inside and see who was outside, and I would say that was about as much time as we really had.'

    In interviews after he came home, Michael Trout, then 21, of Greensburg, said he heard the siren blare for five seconds before the explosion

    Trout was playing Trivial Pursuit when he spotted a mouse and left the game. That fear of rodents saved his life. Six of eight other soldiers in the game were killed in the explosion.

    'I'm scared of mice, so I walked away,' Trout said during his homecoming.

    Staff Sgt. Lester Bennett of Johnstown, then 40, said the siren still was sounding when the blast occurred. He was just about to take a shower when an orange explosion buckled I-beams and bent sheet metal.

    The warhead exploded after it hit the floor of the barracks, creating a crater 12 feet wide and 4 feet deep. Army investigators found big chunks of the missile 40 meters from the point of impact. Smaller pieces were found as far as 75 meters away.

    The detachment was supposed to be in a safe, rear area, far from the fighting. Instead, the attack made the names of the unit's citizen-soldiers synonymous with duty and sacrifice.

    A faraway war had hit very close to home.

    Staff writer Jennifer Reeger contributed to this report.

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