the gulf war
homeoral historywar storiesweaponsmapsdiscussion

Atkinson on the Patriot

Q: Now tell me what was happening with the Patriots.

Atkinson: The Patriot had originally been developed as an anti-aircraft missile to shoot down enemy jets as they were coming in. And it had been adapted to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, which is a much different process. A warhead that is coming in at mach 6 at 4,000 miles an hour is much more difficult to shoot down, it's much smaller among other things than an airplane that's coming at Mach 1 or Mach 2. Unbeknowst to the Americans the SCUDS had been modified in a way that made them much more difficult than anyone had anticipated to shoot down. In order to extend their range, the Iraqis had basically eviscerated the missiles and had welded in another section to give them more fuel, and it had been done in such a ham-handed manner, it was so clumsy that the stresses, the aerodynamic stresses of the missiles reentering the atmosphere caused them to break apart. And in effect, instead of having just one warhead plummeting down you had pieces of junk. It was almost as though they had deliberately designed decoys similar to the sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles that the Russians and the Americans had done, where all kinds of decoys would come out and make it difficult for radar to tell which was a decoy and which was the actual warhead. When the first SCUDs started falling, the Patriots would fire at a target, the Patriot missile would see a bunch of different things coming down and many Patriots would be fired to the point where first the Americans weren't certain what was being hit and secondly there were large numbers of Patriots being expended, 31 on one particular day early on. This caused concern first about the effectiveness of the Patriot and second about the stocks of Patriot missiles.

Q: What's the difference between what the public is being told about the performance of the Patriots and the reality?

Atkinson: Well, the public was being told that the Patriot was in fact, infallible. At one point, Bush went to the Patriot factory in Massachusetts and said, there have been 42 Patriots fired and 41 of them have been intercepted, virtually 100 percent. Schwarzkopf at one point said, of 33, 33 have been destroyed. 33 SCUDs. In fact, there was a recognition that they didn't quite know what the Patriot was doing. First there was confusion over the debris that was falling with the warhead as the SCUDs were breaking up. Secondly it was impossible to determine exactly what was happening high in the atmosphere, at these tremendous speeds, exactly what was being destroyed. It was considered prudent in the long run to keep this hidden from the public. I believe that the public was best served, particularly in Israel, by having great faith in the Patriot.

Q: What about the bitterness of the Israelis about the performance of the Patriot....in the end how did this work out?

Atkinson: The Israelis believed that the Americans didn't fully understand the deficiencies of the Patriot. That the Americans were being willfully blind about it. And there were bitter complaints. Moshe Arens came to Washington in February and had a meeting with Bush and his senior advisors in which he said, the Patriot is not working... We believe that only 20 percent of the SCUDs that are attacked with the Patriot are in fact, destroyed. Cheney at the same meeting spoke up and said, there is a fundamental disagreement over how effective the Patriots are. Nevertheless, the Israelis recognized that a belief that the Patriot was effective was almost as important as the effectiveness of the missile itself. It helped to calm the Israeli population. It helped to prevent the Israeli government, the Shamir government from coming under pressure to actively leap into the war. It was a very effective propaganda tool. And whenever suggestions were made within the Israeli government that the truth about the Patriot as seen by the Israelis be made public other voices prevailed saying, why would we tell Sadam that the Patriot is not working when in fact it's in our best interest to let him believe that it's infallible.



home · oral history · war stories · weapons · maps · chronology
tapes & transcripts 
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS