The Great Scud Hunt

  • Share
  • Read Later
JASSIM MOHAMMED/AP

U.N. arms inspectors visit the al-Nidaa company near Baghdad. Today, it's a metal works factory, but the U.N. says Iraq once manufactured Scud missiles there

(2 of 3)

This time the U.S. has some better ideas about where to find Scud launchers. Israeli special forces belonging to a unit called Shaldag (Hebrew for "Kingfisher") have been conducting reconnaissance missions in western Iraq, looking for likely launch sites that are near good hiding places. Israeli intelligence has identified for the U.S. these possible launch areas as well as the best elevated positions from which to keep track of them. Washington has promised Israel that U.S. commandos would be sent into western Iraq in the war's opening minutes to hunt down the Scud systems and call in air strikes to destroy them.

Those assurances are largely politically motivated because, in reality, there's a limited chance that commandos would come across Scud teams in the vastness of the Iraqi desert. Another resource for spotting Scud teams before they have shot a missile is the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) airplane, which was used experimentally in 1991. J-STARS scours the ground like an AWACS scours the skies, keeping track of things that move.

Still, the easiest way to catch a Scud launcher is after it has fired. Satellites help, but in a new conflict, the U.S. would also have new tools like the Battlefield Ordnance Awareness system, which detect the flash of missile firings on the ground from spy planes flying high above Iraq. Instead of funneling intelligence back to the U.S.--as had to be done in the Gulf War — new systems would give commanders in the region direct access to information, enabling them, for instance, to guide warplanes to any exposed Scuds. The idea is to shorten what the Pentagon calls the "kill chain"--the time taken between finding a target and destroying it. One novel option for eliminating Scud systems is the newly armed Predator drone. The Predator can loiter over the desert for a day, far longer than a manned warplane.

Would the new technologies give the U.S. all the edge it would need? General John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, says he's "very" confident that the U.S. could do a better job of killing Scuds in a second Gulf War. But a study by the Rand Corp. earlier this year concluded that the U.S. Air Force still can't detect and destroy a Scud within 10 minutes, whereas the Iraqis can flee in six. Efforts to kill mobile Scuds "will continue to be relatively ineffective" until improved reconnaissance systems are developed, according to the Rand report. Myron Hura, one of its authors, says Saddam could erase any U.S. advantage from the past 11 years of technological improvement by deploying more decoys and hiding his real Scuds in populated areas or near mosques and schools. "It remains a tough challenge," says Hura.

If the U.S. can't destroy Scud systems before or after they launch, there is one more line of defense — intercepting the missiles as they come in. The technology for that mission has improved since 1991 too. With U.S. financial and technical help, the Israelis have built, at a cost of $2 billion, an antimissile system called the Arrow. Though it is new and untested in combat, the Israelis estimate that the Arrow could destroy 9 of every 10 incoming Scuds. It is designed to destroy missiles at a higher altitude (25 to 60 miles) than the system used in 1991, the U.S. Patriot (which can kill an incoming missile as close as two miles away). Plus, the explosion high in the atmosphere would spew the biological or chemical weapons over a wider area, perhaps rendering them ineffective.

Israel will still use the U.S.-supplied Patriot, linking that system to the Arrow to provide a two-layered defense. If the Arrow missed an incoming Scud, the lower-aiming Patriot would get a chance to shoot it down. The Patriots stationed in Israel are an improved version of the same design that failed to destroy nearly all the Scuds it targeted in the last Gulf War. Israeli officials are confident the improved Patriots would perform better in a second conflict. But just in case some Scuds would succeed in piercing the dual shields, Israel is providing its citizens with gas masks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending $12 billion developing a new generation of Patriots. The original Patriot was designed to destroy airplanes and was drafted to shoot down missiles only in the heat of the Gulf War. Unlike the older Patriot, which destroys its target by blowing up as it passes by, the new Patriot destroys its target by crashing into it. The Pentagon, eyeing a possible war with Iraq, recently decided to boost production of the new Patriot, each of which costs $10 million.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3