What happens if Saddam Hussein fires chemical or biological weapons at American troops? The United States will use its last line of defense, the Army's new and, we're told, much improved Patriot missile. Improved, that is, since the last war with Saddam, when the Patriot was a failure by most accounts.
The new, high-flying Patriot is designed to collide with Saddam's missiles above the Earth's atmosphere and obliterate their payload of paralyzing germs and microbes. Correspondent Dan Rather went to Kuwait to find out how the new, very high-tech Patriot works, and to see what will happen if it doesn't.
Marines at Camp Doha, Kuwait, prepare every day for a "C-borne event." That's "C" for "chemical."
If one of Saddam's SCUDs penetrates US defenses and hits land, these men from the 9th Command Battalion will rush to the scene, set up a satellite communications system, and report back to Command Central.
It's a terrifying scenario--so terrifying they try not to think about it. "Some of these agents, once you start feeling the effects of it, you're gone. You're already a dead man," says a Marine named Jeff.
"The weapons are something that you probably won't see. It's going to be in the air, it's going to surround you. It's not like a bullet, you smell it, it can cause death," says another Marine, Darryl.
"We just try to keep our minds off that as much as possible," adds Jeff. "It's no use worrying over it. It's just going to make you lose your mind."
The Army hopes these men will never have to be rushed forward. It has deployed batteries of new Patriot missiles all around Iraq. They are called PAC-3s.
Lt. Col. Rob Jassey says they rely on technology that has never before been used in war time.
"The PAC-3 is completely different," says Jassey. "It's a hit-to-kill missile. It's designed to hit body on body contact with its target and the kinetic energy generated would completely obliterate the target."
In effect, it hits a bullet with a bullet. And it hits in the upper atmosphere to destroy the enemy missile's poisonous payload.
In the desert, the Patriot launchers are protected by pyramid-shaped sand bunkers. The missiles are hidden inside long crates. So, the missiles aren't seen until they are actually fired. As Lt. Col. Jassey says, "The missile comes from the factory already in its transportation container. And that serves as the launch container for the missile."
Each box contains a missile. But in the case of the PAC-3, Jassey explains, there are four missiles inside each box of the same size. And there are up to four boxes on each launcher, for a total of 16 missiles.
That means quadruple the firepower.
PAC-3's are smaller and faster than the Patriots used in the first Gulf War. Although they have never been fired in war, they have been fired by the Army against incoming missiles on testing grounds in New Mexico. But they have yet to be tested against anything like Saddam's unpredictable, cork-screwing SCUD missiles.
We asked Col. Jassey what makes a SCUD so hard to hit. "Well, they're traveling at two kilometers a second, or about 3,000-3,500 miles an hour," he says. "You've got this missile going out at a kilometer a second, you know, 2,000 miles an hour. The bottom line is, you could have two objects coming at each other 5,000 miles per hour."
That means every Patriot battery has to respond quickly, because every second counts.
We visited one battery under the command of Captain Jennifer Schulke, a fast-talking dynamo from El Paso, Tex. At Taskforce Iron Fist, she and her soldiers have already set up the generator that runs the system. The missiles are armed and ready to go.
"Whenever we get any kind of drills, any kind of alerts, everything is for real," Captain Schulke says. "We practice as though it's the real thing."
That means all involved have got to do their job pretty quickly. "They don't have a lot of time to think. All they can do is react and get to their right place at the right time," Schulke says.
Lt. Col. Jassey concurs. "It's only a matter 15, 20 seconds that all this is occurring," he says. "And especially at the end game, that's happening in milliseconds--microseconds some of the time."
The PAC-3 is, in effect, the last line of defense against SCUD missiles.
But will the new Patriots work? The Army is trying not to promise too much about how any of the Patriots will perform against Saddam this time, in part because statements by General Norman Schwarkopf and others in the first Gulf War turned out to be inaccurate.
At one point in January 1991, General Schwarzkopf claimed a 100 percent success rate for the Patriot.
But that turned out to be just plain wrong and not even close. In the last war, Patriots were not able to stop a SCUD attack on the Israeli community of Ramat Gan. Or the devastating SCUD attack on US military barracks in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, in which 28 Americans were killed.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Ted Postol, who conducted an extensive investigation of the Patriots after the war, told 60 Minutes II in an interview three years ago, "We analyzed at MIT the Patriot performance. And our analysis indicated that the Patriots probably did not destroy a single SCUD warhead. Probably the performance was zero."
George Lewis, who collaborated with Professor Postol on the MIT study, said they studied video of part or all of about two-thirds of all Patriot engagements and found that "there was not a single one that showed a successful engagement." That is, none of the engagements studied showed a successful Patriot hit on a SCUD missile. In every case, the SCUD warhead reached the ground.
Based on their study, Lewis says, "We can't prove absolute zero. But it's clearly very low."
Phil Coyle, the former assistant secretary of defense, says, "I think the Army actually believed that they were working. They were seeing pieces of shrapnel coming down, not realizing that the SCUDS were breaking up partly on reentry." (The SCUD flies so high that it actually leaves the atmosphere before returning to Earth to hit its target.)
The Army has yet to set the record straight officially and publicly.
In any case, the military says that the new PAC-3 Patriot represents new and improved technology, and that it fires with deadly accuracy. We asked Phil Coyle and George Lewis how they would evaluate the new Patriot.
"The PAC-3 is certainly a big improvement," says George Lewis. "The big problem in the Gulf War was that these SCUDS broke apart and maneuvered. The PAC-3 is much more maneuverable." This time around, he says, "If the same threat appears, [that is] these SCUDS that break apart and maneuver, it's simply unclear to me if the PAC-3 is going to be up to the job."
In a war against Saddam, Phil Coyle says, the Army can't count on the new Patriots working more than 25 percent of the time. He reasons that the new system is still in its testing and development phase. "And the problem is," he says, "the war came before the system was ready for it,"
No one argues that even the improved PAC-3 model of the Patriot can be 100 percent effective versus chemical and biological attacks. But as the only test that matters, the battlefield test, nears, whether the Patriot is 50 percent effective or even 20 percent effective, front line troops agree that a partially effective Patriot is better then no Patriot missile at all.
At Camp Doha, the Marines who are trained to respond to a missile attack continue to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. "I doubt that a SCUD would get through our defenses," one Marine told us. "I know that we're always upgrading our equipment, making sure that we have top of the line equipment. So I have confidence in the Patriots," says another.
But the Marines' lieutenant, Brandon Flood, is more realistic. He told us no good soldier or Marine should expect that any military system, including the new Patriot, will work all the time.
"To be honest, percentage-wise, I mean, I don't know anything that's 100 per cent," he says. "I don't know anything. You can never plan for the fog of war."
At her Patriot battery in the Kuwaiti desert, even the optimistic Captain Schulke realizes the PAC-2 and PAC-3s can't shoot down every incoming missile. That's why her troops built a bunker that can protect from 20 to 30 people.
The existence of the bunker really drives home what the reality could be Asked if the prospect of chemical attack scares her, Captain Schulke says: "Oh, sir, it scares all of us. The best we can do is get prepared for it, and have everything on hand that we need to defend ourselves against it. So the better we are prepared for it, the better off we'll be to face it should it come to us."