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Project on Government Oversight




Investigative Lead: Patriot Missile Problems Date Back to 1993

April 16, 2003 


Patriot missiles have been "shooting down" friendly aircraft in testing as far back as 1993, sources have told the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Yet, a decade later even the updated PAC-2 and PAC-3 patriot missile radar apparently continue to experience problems discriminating the difference between friendly and enemy aircraft, and Iraqi missiles and aircraft.

U.S. officials now believe that during Operation Iraqi Freedom two friendly aircraft, a British Tornado GR4 fighter-bomber on May 22 and a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet on April 2, were shot down by U.S. Patriot missiles, killing three airmen. In another incident, a U.S. F-16 fighter pilot on May 24 fired on a Patriot missile battery after the aircraft's radar revealed the missile battery was "locked" on the aircraft.

"The Pentagon has known for a decade that the Patriot cannot distinguish its targets from our own aircraft," said Danielle Brian, POGO's Executive Director. "It is an outrage that they have not fixed this fundamental flaw, yet continue to buy it and sell it to our allies, and have the gall to promote this weapon in both Gulf Wars as a star when they've known it is a dud."

Several sources have told POGO the Air Force and Army have been aware of the serious target discrimination problem since it first was revealed in testing at Nellis Air Force Base in 1993. During that test, sources say, a U.S. aircraft simulating a return home from a mission was flying in a corridor reserved for friendly aircraft but still would have been "shot down" by the Patriot were it an actual combat situation.

Subsequent exercises and tests have revealed that the Patriot radar discrimination problems were not fixed, according to Philip Coyle, former Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, the Pentagon's independent testing office. The problems were identified in so-called Joint Air Defense Operations/Joint Engagement Zones exercises during the mid-1990s, Coyle said.

Because of the density of U.S. aircraft and out of concern for fratricide, the rules of engagement for the first Gulf War did not allow Patriot missile units to fire on aircraft, also known as air breathing targets. Some critics have said the same rules of engagement should have been in place during Operation Iraqi Freedom since there really were no enemy aircraft operating.

So far, Pentagon officials have not revealed whether the Patriot firings during Operation Iraqi Freedom were done automatically or manually, or whether the Patriot system mistakenly identified the aircraft as enemy aircraft or enemy missiles.

The newest version of the Patriot missile, the PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability-3) experienced some difficulties during operational testing. However, late last year, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told the media that any glitches on the PAC-3 missiles were "minor" and "annoying."

Other than the friendly fire incidents, officials say the performance of the Patriot missiles has been "very good" during Operation Iraqi Freedom. That's also what the Army claimed during the first Gulf War. Despite Pentagon estimates of up to 80 percent effectiveness during the 1991 conflict, a General Accounting Office study later revealed that the proclaimed Scud killer actually performed very poorly. In fact, the GAO concluded that the Patriot only hit 9 percent of the Iraqi Scud missiles that were launched during the first Gulf conflict. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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