The Patriot Controversy: Close the Critics' Book

DURING the past several months a steady cacophony of criticism has been directed at the Army's Patriot missile system. The tenor of the criticism seems a gleeful return to the days before Desert Storm when "experts" predicted the demise of the very same systems that served the United States so well when the war then began.

Fortunately for the US, this latest criticism is just as flawed as the charges made several years ago. Despite the rancorous and slanted television presentations and a series of ill-informed editorial tirades, the Patriot remains a proven battlefield winner - the world's only fielded anti-missile defense system.

Originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, today's more advanced PAC-2 Patriot is capable of defending high-value targets such as command-and-control centers, airfields, and logistics bases from intermediate-range missiles like those covered by the INF treaty between the US and the former Soviet Union - weapons much slower than the Scuds fired during the Gulf war. It does so by intercepting and then destroying or diverting incoming warheads.

During the Gulf war, the Patriot not only accomplished its mission; it did more. Within 12 hours of arriving in Israel, Patriot units were in action, ready to do their best to handle a new, broader mission of defense against modified Iraqi Scuds which frequently broke up in flight and complicated the job of intercepting the actual warhead.

Most of the controversy surrounding the Patriot has centered on the success rate of the units deployed in Israel. Initial Defense Department figures cited success rates of better than 50 percent. After further analysis, Defense experts adjusted that figure to well over 40 percent warhead kills or mission kills. (The former refers to the destruction of a warhead; the latter to missile diversions or large reductions in payload delivery.) If two unsuccessful engagements, now classified as failures, were to be reclassified as mission kills, the Army would be in the position of adjusting its success rate upward, not downward, because the success rate would be closer to 60 percent than 50 percent, the original number. In Saudi Arabia, the Patriot successfully engaged more than 70 percent of its Iraqi Scud targets.

The Army analysis of the Patriot-Scud engagements has been rigorous and conservative and based on every piece of evidence and data one could expect to exist. Israeli and American soldiers were fighting a war. They were not testing missiles at the Army's White Sands Missile Range. There were no elaborate telemetry devices in place. High-speed tracking cameras at every Patriot fire unit were not available. Instant replay was not available. What went on was not a game.

As a result of these reviews, the book ought now to be closed on the success-rate debate - though further refinement of the methods used to collect and analyze data should and will continue. After last year's debate, little has changed since President Bush and the Defense Department made their pronouncements about Patriot. Mr. Bush's praise of the Patriot was appropriate, as was his observation in February 1991 that, "No system is [perfect]; no system ever will be, and not every intercept results in tota l destruction."

Perhaps the most bizarre as well as perplexing element of the success-rate debate has been the accommodating reception given by the press and networks to Patriot critics. No serious examination of the critics' positions was undertaken by either the print or electronic media. The statements of critics have been reported as gospel.

Yet in testimony before the House Government Operations Committee, a representative of the Congressional Research Service characterized the analysis of MIT Prof. Theodore Postol, Patriot's most outspoken critic, as "worthless." Dr. Postol's attempt to analyze Patriot-Scud engagements by referring to commercial-news video footage was discredited by Dr. Peter Zimmerman, a physicist and expert in imagery analysis at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Further refuta tion of Postol's methodology came from Charles Zraket, a former chairman of MITRE, a nationally recognized research institution, and a scholar-in-residence at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Reuven Pedatzur, a less well-known but equally prolific critic of the Patriot, received the same hands-off media treatment as Postol. Mr. Pedatzur's diatribes claimed that the "Patriot missiles did not succeed to hit [sic] any warhead of the Scud missile.... The intercepts in Israel [were] zero." In this assertion Pedatzur, a retired Israeli Air Force major, stands alone. In fact, no responsible analyst in the US or Israel shares his view.

Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun, a retired commander of the Israeli Air Force, was so taken aback by Pedatzur's unsubstantiated broadsides that he prepared a letter disavowing any agreement with Pedatzur's opinions and clearly distancing himself from Pedatzur's position. That letter is now a part of the Congressional Record.

The real Patriot story has several essential elements.

* On the strategic level, Patriot was an important factor in the Israeli decision to avoid a direct entry into the Gulf war.

* At the tactical level, Patriot accomplished a historic mission: successfully engaging, intercepting, and killing incoming ballistic missiles.

* On the psychological level, Patriot provided a great mental lift for Israelis, Americans, and freedom-loving people around the world by demonstrating the effectiveness of American technology.

* And, most important, on the human level, the Patriot saved lives.

Today, Patriot is the only weapon system in the world that can do what was done in the Gulf war, and Patriot will be the only fielded system with that unique, missile-killing capability for most, if not all, of this decade. Whether it will be the most effective anti-missile system in the next century remains to be seen. But Patriot has been and is today a remarkable American technological achievement and a highly successful weapon system.

We won Desert Storm, and Patriot played a vital role in that victory. If we are going to be prepared to win again, we must look to the future, build on what we have learned, and abandon fruitless debates over small statistical differences - arguments advanced by those pursuing their own agendas.

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