WASHINGTON - On the opening night of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Army's Apache attack helicopters swept into Iraq while Patriot missile batteries readied to shoot down Saddam Hussein's Scuds over the skies of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Thousands of small, boxlike M8 nerve agent detectors accompanied U.S. forces as they surged north toward Kuwait.
A decade later, a more lethal tank-killing Apache helicopter is set to take on Hussein's forces while a more powerful and sophisticated Patriot missile will replace what critics say was, at best, an unreliable predecessor. Those M8 detectors, prone to numerous false alarms in the gulf war - they were set off by everything from diesel fuel to cologne - have been overtaken by their supposedly more discriminating cousin, the M22.
For centuries, wars have been the testing ground for the latest in the technology of death. In 1346, the longbow was used by the English at the Battle of Crecy to defeat the French. That bow was followed by the rifle, the tank and, a little more than a year ago in Afghanistan, an unmanned aircraft launching a Hellfire missile.
In a second Persian Gulf war, other military technologies could make their debut. The Air Force may use a 21,000-pound bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, which wags are calling the "Mother Of All Bombs." Or it may employ the "e-bomb," which emits an electromagnetic pulse that fries enemy's circuits, disabling everything from telephones and radar to computers but not hurting people.
And that Hellfire missile, so deadly against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces, has been made even more accurate. Outfitted with a radar-guidance system, these missiles are carried by the latest version of the Apache helicopter, known as the Apache Longbow. Scores of Longbows, each armed with 16 of the improved Hellfires, are sitting in the Kuwaiti desert, awaiting their first foray into combat.
Topped with a domelike device called a fire control radar, one Longbow can scan a battlefield of 250 square kilometers and detect more than 1,000 targets. A large cockpit TV screen can display up to 256 of those targets, and the two-man crew can shoot Hellfire missiles at 16 of those targets in under a minute, officials said.
Army tests in the California desert showed that the Longbow was 400 percent more lethal than the gulf war-style Apache, in which pilots relied on their eyesight to pick out targets. And their Hellfire missiles were all laser-guided, meaning they had to be directed by the Apache crew all the way to the target.
The radar-guided missile in the Longbow is a "fire and forget" weapon, meaning crew members can be assured that the Hellfire will automatically home in on the target, and they can turn to the next threat.
The Apache Longbow "is the most powerful weapon in the free world," boasted Col. Michael Riley, program manager for the Longbow at Fort Rucker, Ala. "You have the ability to detect, identify and attack in speeds heretofore unknown."
The 101st Airborne Division, whose 17,000 soldiers are at Camp New Jersey in Kuwait, has 48 Longbows in its arsenal, more than any other Army division, Riley said. The division is set to play a key role in the likely war in Iraq, perhaps sweeping into the northern part of the country to take on Hussein's forces.
Old Patriot questioned
If the Apache was one of the stars of the gulf war, the Army's Patriot missile was perhaps the most disparaged weapon, and its success rate is strongly debated. But Army Lt. Col. Rob Jassey, a manager for the lower-tier air missile defense at Fort Bliss, Texas, said that is an old story, and he has high hopes for the latest incarnation, the Patriot PAC-3.
"It's completely different" from its predecessor, Jassey said. The radar is twice as powerful, the system can cover a wider area, and the missile can differentiate between a Scud's explosive warhead and the debris the missile throws off as it nears its target.
The new Patriot also is a "hit-to-kill" missile, slamming directly into the Scud. The gulf war version would explode like a shotgun shell near the Scud, scattering hundreds of pellets, some of which might, or might not, hit the target.
Patriot PAC-3 batteries are deployed in seven countries in the gulf region, from Israel and Jordan to Turkey and Qatar, prepared for defense against Hussein's ballistic missiles. When the Army held war games in Germany two months ago, its computerized maps showed Patriots in still another country: Iraq. Several Patriot batteries were shown on the map just outside of Baghdad, their reach represented by a glowing blue circle.
Designed in the 1970s to shoot down aircraft, the Patriot was later modified to deal with ballistic missiles as well, though it was never meant to defend large metropolitan areas, officials said. That, however, was their intended role in the first gulf war, when they were deployed in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
After Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Army units headed to the region with the only three Patriot PAC-2 missiles in existence. Production was accelerated, and by the time the war started five months later, there were more than 500 PAC-2 missiles in the Middle East.
Army officials later said the Iraqi Scud turned out to be faster than anticipated - traveling about 5,000 mph as it descended to its target - and also tended to break up as it re-entered the atmosphere, leaving the Patriot missile confused about what piece to hit.
When the war ended, the Army first said the Patriot was 96 percent effective in destroying Scuds, but upon further review the Army lowered that success rate to 80 percent. Then it said the missile was 70 percent effective over Saudi Arabia and 40 percent effective over Israel.
"The Army is here today to tell you the Patriot story, a terrific success story, tactically, psychologically and politically," said Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, deputy chief of staff for operations, testifying before Congress in the spring of 1992. But Garner declined to reveal the "shot by shot" assessment upon which the rosy success rate was based, saying the information was classified, and its release could help an adversary understand the missile's capability.
At the time, the success rate Garner noted was brushed aside by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Theodore A. Postol, a former Pentagon adviser on ballistic missiles, who said unclassified videotapes of Patriots trying to intercept Scuds showed an intercept rate of 10 percent, maybe even zero. The General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, then said the Army's high estimate of Patriot effectiveness could not be supported by the data the Army said it used.
Philip Coyle, who headed the Pentagon's weapons testing from 1994 to 2001, said in an interview that he doubts that the Patriot achieved the 70 percent success rate the Army claimed and never saw evidence backing it up. Still, Coyle said, missiles that defend against missiles have "some deterrent value," and he predicted the new Patriot would have a success rate of about 25 percent.
11 hits in 15 tries
But Jassey, the Army officer who oversees the Patriot, noted that the missile had 11 hits out of 15 in tests during the past five years. "I have every confidence it's going to work out," he said.
Meanwhile, Garner is expected to be involved in the next gulf war. The retired general is the Pentagon's choice to oversee humanitarian relief efforts in postwar Iraq.
Military planners say one of their greatest nightmares is the possibility that Hussein may employ his weapons of mass destruction on invading U.S. forces, unleashing a cloud of blistering mustard gas, the deadly nerve agent VX or anthrax.
While Hussein threatened to use such chemical and biological weapons before the gulf war of 1991, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III warned Iraqi officials that such an attack would be met with the full power of the U.S. military, meaning a possible nuclear response.
But this time, Hussein is the target and not his troops in Kuwait, leading many military officers to assume that he will use such banned weapons in a desperate attempt to push back a U.S.-led assault.
To protect against such an attack, U.S. forces are being inoculated against biological agents and provided with chemical protection suits. Overall, the Army has developed 19 chemical and biological defense items in the past six years.
More sensitive detector
Among them is the bread-box-size M22 Automatic Chemical Agent Detector Alarm, thousands of which have been sent over with U.S. troops, and the M31 Biological Integrated Detection System, or BIDS, basically a Humvee mounted with sophisticated gear. Dozens of them are in the countries bordering Iraq, officials said.
Army Brig. Gen. Steve Reeves, program officer for chemical and biological defense at the Pentagon, said the M22 is far more sensitive than its gulf war predecessor and able to detect both nerve agents, such as VX, and blister agents, such as mustard. The false-alarm prone M8 could reliably detect only nerve agent.
The M22s, which are assembled at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, would be placed up to 150 meters in front of the main body of U.S. forces, on the ground or in a vehicle, and continually sample the air. Any chemical or biological agents would trip an alarm as loud as a rock concert, giving troops the requisite nine seconds to don their gas masks, Reeves said.
In the gulf war, Reeves said, there was no mobile biological detection equipment. Now that role falls to the BIDS, which would roam the battlefield, about one to five kilometers in front of the main force of troops.
"Now is that to say we won't have a false alarm? We might," Reeves said. "But in 98, 99 percent of the time, we've got an improved detector, and we're convinced that we fixed the problem."
Should war come, the Army may also deploy Zeus.
A laser mounted on a Humvee that is also equipped with cameras, Zeus is designed to focus its beam on surface land mines up to 300 meters away, unlike the current method of hand-held electronic detectors and cumbersome tank-borne demining gear.
The laser on Zeus aims a dime-size beam on the mine's casing, heating it and causing a low-level explosion, said John Wachs, acting director of the Directed Energy Directorate at the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala.
Wachs said Zeus provides a wider comfort zone for soldiers, and the lower-level detonation would cause less damage to roads and urban areas. The system has proved promising in tests, although Army officials are uncertain how many will be built.
Today there is only one Zeus. It's sitting in northern Alabama. "Right now it's one of a kind," Wachs said.