Politics & Policy

Muffling U.S. Missile Success

An essential, missed message from the frontlines.

I’m now officially a six-time beneficiary of missile defense. Early on the morning of March 20, coalition forces loosed heavy munitions on the CIA-detected conference of Iraqi leaders. The first day of America’s second Iraq war had begun. It didn’t take long for those of us staging with U.S. forces in northern Kuwait to receive a response.

About half past noon, the air-raid sirens at Camp Champion began to wail. “Dynamite, Dynamite, Dynamite!” exclaimed the loudspeaker (the shorthand for “this is a real attack”), “Scuds inbound from southern Iraq.” For a second, all of us in the tent stared at each other wondering if this was just another drill. Then we all ripped the Velcro on our gas-mask carriers, clapped our masks on, leapt for the bags containing our chemical-protective suits, and darted for the Scud bunker.

It became very quiet as we jammed together under the sandbagged concrete culvert. The only sound was the ethereal hissing of the breathing respirators. Depending on where it’s launched from, it would take somewhere between three and 13 minutes for a Scud to reach us. As the minutes ticked by, the normal Army repartee of jokes, jive, and anti-Saddam oaths began to return. “I hope somebody sandbagged one of the porta-johns,” cracked somebody.

Then the loudspeaker began to rumble again. Clearly the announcer was wearing his own gas mask. Through the muffling, however, came his quite intelligible and welcome announcement: Missile destroyed. Medic Chris Dorman told me he heard the explosion thudding on the horizon as an American Patriot antimissile missile smashed into the speeding Scud about 10-15 miles from our camp.

The Patriot system that knocked down these two Scuds has for years been harshly attacked by defense critics; more generally, skeptics have savaged the very prospect of missile defense, sneering that the prospect of hitting one missile with another missile is a pipedream. Well, those of us who spent last week in the Kuwaiti desert are here to tell you ballistic-missile defense works, providing civilians and troops alike with a marvelous shield against nasty dangers.

Soldiers certainly think highly of the Patriots. “We’re gonna have to take those Patriot boys out on the town when we get home,” suggested one trooper, with smiling nods all around. Deployed in densely concentrated camps as they are, they know they’re vulnerable, but have learned to trust and love the protective umbrella that the U.S. military now stretches over critical military arenas and nearby cities. The Kuwait camps are reportedly protected by a seven-layer missile-defense system.

Just one hour later, the first attack was repeated in almost every particular. Once again a gratifying verdict eventually echoed over the loudspeakers: Missile destroyed. It became a long day, however, with a total of seven attack alerts requiring us to throw on our protective gear and pour into the bunkers. As training and meetings and meals had to be cancelled, and everyone had to start wearing their full battle rattle all about camp, one could see the very real strains that are put on troops when they face the threat of chem/bio war, even if the attacks are unsuccessful.

Details came out at that evening’s briefing among the military leadership. The first Scud launch’s plume was detected instantly by the JSTARS airborne battle command center and other radar. Three Patriot missiles fired in response, obliterating the missile. Almost as quickly, an F-15, A-10, or other attack aircraft was dispatched to annihilate the offending launcher. The second Scud came from further north, above Basra. Two Patriots fired and knocked it down. In these first 24 hours we had six confirmed Scud launches; two sailed off in harmless directions, U.S. antimissile batteries were a perfect four-for-four in eliminating the ones heading for coalition military camps.

After a quieter weekend, the camps in northern Kuwait came under attack again on Monday. Just before 5:00 P.M. local time we had our first double ballistic-missile launch. It appears the Iraqis were hoping to sneak a close-trailing missile by the Patriots while they were preoccupied with the first launch. The antimissile system came through again with flying colors, however, knocking down both rockets.

Unfortunately, it appears a British Tornado was also destroyed by a Patriot battery within the last 24 hours, suggesting that increased effort to identify friendly coalition aircraft will need to be one of the next stages in the constant refinement of the Patriot. This will require overcoming the kind of boundaries that used to divide, for instance, our Air Force and Army — where incompatible equipment, language, and operating procedures used to bedevil joint operation.

Inexplicably, media reports have failed to mark the last few days as a powerful vindication of missile defense. This is a gross oversight. At this point, Saddam Hussein’s best chance to hurt America is to lob a missile into one of the northern Kuwaiti camps where soldiers like those I am with are densely concentrated. The Patriot antimissiles are the only thing standing between us and a Beirut bombing- or Khobar Tower-type kill.

The establishment media have also elided over another fundamental lesson of this week: Intermediate-range Scud ballistic missiles are one of the weapons Saddam Hussein was years ago banned from possessing by U.N. Resolution 686. They are one of the weapons that, just weeks ago, he swore on a stack of Holy Korans he didn’t possess. They are one of the weapons that U.N. inspectors told us they saw no sign of. They are one of the weapons that Security Council opponents of the U.S. sniffed that Iraq was unlikely to possess any longer.

So: In the very first days of hostilities, Saddam revealed himself (once again) to be a liar. Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and other apologists for the U.N. inspection charade were shown to be feckless fools. And American antiballistic-missile technology was demonstrated to be the defensive bulwark of our future.

Karl Zinsmeister is editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.


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