The Weapon That Didn't Work

Missile First Tried In Serbian Conflict

The air war against Serbia has been billed as the most accurate in history. The general who commanded it told Congress every weapon performed up to or beyond expectations.

But CBS News Pentagon Correspondent David Martin says that although the military gets high grades for its performance in Kosovo, there is one exception.
Day after day military briefers released videotape of smart bombs scoring direct hits. But there was one weapon that never hit its target, and one set of videotapes the briefers never showed.

The AGM-142 is an air-to-ground missile carried under the wing of the giant B-52 bomber. The missile was in the American arsenal for nearly a decade but never saw combat until it was used to strike targets in Serbia.

A videotape shot by the camera in the nose of the missile shows what happened: The AGM-142 went haywire, wandered all over the sky and crashed.

That came as no surprise to Air Force officers familiar with the missile. "The bottom line is that the missile was not reliable, and I was saying that in the early '90s," says former General Buster Glosson, who was in charge of Air Force operations before he retired, and is now a consultant for CBS News.

"It's a relatively small warhead," says Glosson. "The penetration capability is no better than others we had in the inventory."

Glosson watched the AGM-142 ever since the Air Force first tested the missile. It was designed to hit targets from 50 miles away with pinpoint accuracy.

Videotapes show the missile scoring direct hits; of 34 tests, the Air Force rated 23 as successful. But Glosson says that was not good enough because some tests were not realistic: "The canned tests...were run only under very benign situations and environments and rehearsed and practiced over and over and over again."

Aside from questions of performance, the weapon is costly. "The only thing that it could do that others couldn't is that it cost taxpayers of the United States three times as much," Glosson says.

General Richard Hawley, who commanded all the fighters and bombers in the United States until he retired from the Air Force in June, estimates that "it bordered on a million dollars a copy."

The Air Force took a close look at the AGM-142 but decided other, much less expensive, smart bombs could destroy the same targets, Hawley says. "It was too much money for what we got. And so the Air Force concluded that it didn't need this particular capability."

"The Air Force never really found a good way to use the AGM-142," he adds.

The Air Force may have decided the AGM-142 just was not worth the money, but that didn't stop the missile from showing up in the Air Force budget year after year for 10 years. All told, the Air Force has spent more than a quarter billion dollars to buy 240.

Why would the Air Forcinvest so much in a weapon it didn't even want?

The short answer is the AGM-142 is made in Israel, which has powerful friends in important places.

Charlie Wilson, a former Texas congressman, had a seat on the House committee that controlled the Pentagon budget when an Israeli defense firm gave him a sales pitch for the AGM-142. He makes no bones about being one of Israel's best friends in Congress.

To see what former military personnel have to say on U.S. weapons policies, visit Center for Defense Information's Web site.

Wilson reports that the conversation went something like this: "Congressman you've seen, you've seen videotape of the performance of our missile. It has performed very well for the Israeli Air Force. We think that the U.S. Air Force would profit by it....And we would appreciate it if you would help us get some appropriation for it."

The fact that the Air Force hadn't asked for the AGM-142 didn't stop Wilson and Israel's friends in Congress from making sure the Air Force bought it anyway. According to Wilson, that's the way the system works.

Yet he also says: "Remember, if the Air Force or any of the Armed Services absolutely do not want a weapon, chances are very slim that it's going to get in the bill."

"I never had the Air Force come and argue with me and say, 'Congressman, don't do this,'" Wilson says, adding that one Air Force officer privately told him exactly the opposite.

But as far as the Pentagon brass was concerned, this was too much money for too little weapon.
Click here to reach the Air Force's Web site.


Furthermore, the United States could not even use the AGM-142 in Desert Storm because the Israeli-made weapon would be political poison to America's Arab allies.

Glosson, who directed the air war against Iraq, wanted nothing to do with the AGM-142s. "The realities of life are that to take a missile that had its origin in Israel, and use it in a conflict that was basically an Arab conflict, is not only lacking political sensitivity, it's lacking basic intellect."

When he found out some had been shipped into Saudi Arabia without his knowledge, he says, "I thought at first that it was a joke because I did not truthfully believe that anybody could be that stupid." He adds, "I directed that they leave the country as low key and as fast as they came in."

So last spring when B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana loaded up the missiles for a strike against Serbia, their combat debut was a hance to prove the detractors wrong.

But the navigator of the lead B-52, who does not want to be named for fear of Serb retaliation, watched in dismay as first one and then a second AGM-142 failed. "We had known there were some problems in the past with testing, and we felt we had identified most of those and could overcome some of the difficulties from the past and get a successful hit on the target this time," he says.

"We had a failure occur during the middle of the flight," says Frank Robbins, in charge of testing smart weapons for the Air Force. "An anomaly occurred of some sort where the weapons system did not strike the target and in midflight had actually fell to the ground," he says. "We went on and dropped the second one, and the second experienced almost the identical anomaly."

All further AGM-142 missions were canceled until the Air Force could figure out what was wrong. The problem, it turned out, was that the computer aboard the missile couldn't talk to the computer on the B-52. "It was a matter of one line of software code in all the thousands and thousands within the missile," Robbins says.

Three weeks after the failed combat mission, a B-52 test fired a reprogrammed AGM-142. That one scored a direct hit on a target in the Utah desert.

But it was too late. By the time the correct software could be programmed into the missiles, the bombing had ended. These B-52s returned to Barksdale without firing another shot, and the AGM-142 ended up contributing nothing to the air war against Serbia.

So after two wars, the missile is 0 for 2.

But Wilson has no second thoughts about having pushed the weapon. Now retired from Congress, he works for a big-time Washington lobbying firm. Rafael, the Israeli firm that makes the AGM-142, hired him to lobby Congress.

"He knows people, and he knows how to educate them on subjects that are of interest to us. And thats why we hired him," explains Eli Yitzhaki, president of Rafael U.S.A. And Yitzhaki insists two missile failures in Serbia don't change the fact that the AGM-142 gives the Air Force a unique combination of long-range and pinpoint accuracy.

Some might term Wilson's current job a payback from Rafael. Wilson disagrees with this assessment. "I think Rafael needed some help, and I think they thought that if anybody could help them that I could," he says.

While he was hired "to try to get...an appropriation for 1999 to keep their line running," he says, he was unsuccessful in that regard. "The Air Force said, 'We're not going to take it. We do not want it.'"

But just because Congress has finally stopped funding the missile doesn't mean the program has stopped. All the money voted by Congress over 10 years will pay for 78 more missiles. Rafael has even opened up a new assembly line, in Alabama, in a joint venture with the American defense firm Lockheed Martin.

And the costs of the AGM-42 keep piling up as it turns out it needs a lot of maintenance. When Congress told the Air Force to buy the missile, it never voted any money to take care of it.

The maintenance bills are running so high the Air Force will ask Congress for $750,000 a year just to keep the AGM-142s in good working order. Without that money, the Air Force says, it will have to get rid of 90 missiles and use them for spare parts. That would bring the price tag up to $1.7 million per missile and make the AGM-142 the most expensive conventional weapon in the Air Force arsenal.

When asked if American taxpayers are getting their money's worth for a quarter billion dollars invested in the AGM-142, Yitzhaki says, "No doubt. I think this is the best buy they ever bought for the fleet."

"It's a very effective system," Wilson argues. "If we get into another Kosovo-type operation, I believe it's the first thing that will be rolled out."

It would be hard to find anybody in the Air Force who agrees.

And the target in Serbia that the AGM-142 never hit was a communications intercept station. Two weeks after the failed AGM-142 mission, NATO planes destroyed it with laser guided bombs, costing $14,000 a piece.
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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