WASHINGTON - Twelve years after television broadcasts made it a wartime celebrity, the once-vaunted Patriot missile returned to the limelight yesterday to defend allied troops in the Kuwaiti desert and perhaps restore its shattered good name.
Pentagon officials say the anti-missile missile apparently knocked out two Iraqi rockets fired at American troops along the Iraq-Kuwait border yesterday. Soldiers donned masks and protective suits in fear that the short-range missiles might carry chemical or biological warheads, but the scare passed quickly and no injuries were reported.
"I believe the Patriots took out both of them," one official said.
The Army is equipped with a new, upgraded version of the Patriot missile called the Patriot Advanced Capability, or PAC-3. If the initial reports hold up, and the missiles truly destroyed two incoming enemy warheads, then the Patriot might finally have lived up to the lofty reputation it earned in breathless news broadcasts 12 years ago - a reputation later debunked by the evidence.
"I don't think we've seen anything yet to really test the new Patriot missile's effectiveness, but any successful intercept would probably be an improvement," said John Pike, a defense analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank. "The performance last time around would not be hard to beat."
In a war already replete with deja vu, the Patriot is not the first weapon system to reprise its starring role with the benefit of a significant technological upgrade. The Tomahawk cruise missile, launched in the war's first hours, has a new satellite guidance system that has transformed it into a near real-time killer, more useful for hitting fleeting targets like mobile weapons systems, defense analysts say. Its old terrain-mapping guidance system required hours of programming, limiting the missile's fast-strike role.
The modern Patriot missile bears little resemblance to its progenitors, having been given a new shape and size and even a different method of destroying enemy weapons. While earlier Patriots were designed to explode near enemy missiles and blast them with metal fragments, the PAC-3 is built to slam into the missile and destroy it with kinetic energy.
The PAC-3 is also much smaller - a Patriot launcher can fire 16 of the newer missiles, compared to just four of the gulf war variety - and far more nimble in flight.
"The gulf war showed that when you shoot a Patriot at something that is much faster than an aircraft, you don't get optimal results," said Craig Vanbebber, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control division, which builds the upgraded Patriots.
"The PAC-3 is faster, more agile, and the energy that it places on a target just obliterates it," Vanbebber said. "And this time, we know the missiles work."
The Patriot missile was an early hero of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, waging a televised parry with Iraqi Scud missiles across the skies of Israel and Saudi Arabia. During the late stages of Operation Desert Storm, television broadcasts were interrupted regularly with urgent reports of incoming Scuds, outgoing Patriots and brilliant flashes on the desert horizon.
President George Bush toured the missile's Massachusetts assembly plant at the height of the war and declared the Patriot 41 for 42 - "42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted." The stock price of the missile system's manufacturer, Raytheon Co., climbed 10 percent in the last two weeks of January 1991.
But analysis later showed that the Patriot was more a weapon of propaganda than protection, and that the televised explosions were mostly misses. Few Scuds were actually hit by Patriots, and most of those were merely deflected, their deadly warheads careering into residential neighborhoods or city streets.
The Patriot missile was originally conceived as an anti-aircraft weapon, and it proved to be largely incapable of intercepting targets that were smaller and faster than airplanes - despite what television viewers came to believe. A congressional report ultimately concluded that Patriots knocked downed only four Scuds.
"The shallow, Nintendo view of the war that appeared on TV was false," said Pentagon naysayer Pierre Sprey, in testimony before a congressional panel a few months after the war. "It was created by handpicked videotapes and shamelessly doctored statistics."
Most analysts agree that the modern Patriots are an improvement, as yesterday's launches seem to indicate. But few expect the Patriots to be adequate if the Iraqis unleash the large-scale chemical or biological barrage that troops in the desert most fear.
"People can feel better that we have the Patriot out there offering some protection," said Pike. "But higher percentages don't offer a lot of comfort when missiles start breaking through."
More important than defending against missile attacks with Patriots, Pike said, is preparing troops with gas masks and bio-hazard suits and destroying enemy missiles before they're launched.
"I don't think anyone in their right mind is going to assume the Patriot is good enough as your only line of defense," he said.