The War Nerd: Scuds & Patriots -- The armies of this age are weird

By Gary Brecher , written on June 8, 2015

From The War Desk

It’s a headline too good to resist: “Yemen Crisis: Saudi Arabia ‘Shoots Down’ Scud Missile.”

I like everything about that headline, especially the jaded BBC quote marks around “Shoots Down.” It’s one of those headlines you have to read in a world-weary, breathy James-Mason voice:

“Oh, you ‘shot it down,’ did you? Mmmmm….”

With headlines like this, you need all the world-weary cynicism you can carry home from Harrods in a wheelie bin. Everything about the story needs those sanitizing quotes. Some starter questions:

Houthi Scud? How did the Houthi get a Scud? Yemen does, or did, have some Scud-B missiles, but did a rural Shia militia like the Houthi actually manage to get three of them, transport them to their home base of Saada, and fire them at the wealthy town of Khamis Musheit, as the official story goes?

If so, the choice of target city is interesting. Saada is much closer to my old stompin’ ground, Najran. The Houthi have been bombarding Najran for weeks, using simple mortars. On June 5 2015, Houthi infantry supposedly crossed the border in a direct attack on Najran.

So why aim your Scuds at a much more distant target like Khamis Musheit, when there’s a Saudi town like Najran just over the border? Well, that’s actually the one part of the story that makes sense to me. See, Najran—as I’ve written before—is a Shia-majority town, and therefore despised by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Nobody in the house of Saud would so much as shrug if Najran was blasted by a Scud. Oh, they’re not gonna let the Houthis take Najran; the Sauds don’t give up one inch of their rightfully-grabbed real estate. But they don’t really give a damn about the actual inhabitants of Najran.

Khamis Musheit is a very different matter. It’s the gateway to Abha, capital of Asir Province, the highland resort where it’s cool and pleasant all year round. The men who matter in Riyadh would be very upset if anything happened to Khamis Musheit, or any other town in Asir.

So maybe, just maybe, the Houthi really did choose to aim their few Scuds at Khamis Musheit. And maybe…and this is a much bigger “maybe”…maybe the Saudis actually did hit it with one of their Patriot surface-to-air missiles.

But even if they did, there’s a huge difference between hitting a Scud with a Patriot and shooting down a Scud with one.

To understand that difference, you have to go back to the weird world of Cold-War armaments, to the bizarre genealogy of these two weapons. The Scud and the Patriot; they’re like the Sperm Whale and the Giant Squid, or Murmillo and Retarius—Archetypes who’ve been fighting on some astral plane since the Big Bang.

The Patriot is one of the best-known and least-understood weapons in the US arsenal. It’s the Brad Dourif of surface-to-air (SA) missiles, very good at what it was designed to do, but continually mis-cast, forced to do roles it wasn’t meant to handle.

The Patriot missile system, aka MIM-104, was a classic example of 1970s American military thinking, if you can call it “thinking.” In the mid-1970s, the US defense industry (and that’s all it is, remember) started mirroring Soviet designs. Since the Soviets had made a huge investment in surface-to-air missiles, the US had to follow, abandoning its past focus on aircraft to produce missiles designed to bring down fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters. The Patriot, originally designated SAM-D, was the high-end, high-altitude variant.

This was a bad idea in the first place, like a cavalry-heavy force deciding to match an opponent in caltrops production.

American strategy had always been to dominate the air space—and until pretty recently, that was a sound idea. Trying to dominate the air while deploying all kinds of SA missiles was a sure way to bring down your own aircraft, which is why the Americans’ impulse buy in SA munitions was quickly followed by a remedial push to come up with a reliable IFF system that would keep those munitions from shooting down our own very expensive aircraft.

The Patriot turned out to be a good design, by the wildly overpriced standards of the US defense industry. But it was meant to bring down Soviet fighter-bombers, not Scud missiles. Those are two completely different missions, requiring totally different designs.

Fighter-bombers are like Smokey: “Fragile, man, very fragile.” They’re so fragile that quite a few have been brought down by geese. Yeah, geese. Unguided, Xmas-dinner geese.

So it doesn’t take much of a hit to bring down a jet fighter. The Patriot was designed for that job, which meant that it had a relatively small warhead and, more importantly, was not designed to literally hit the target but to detonate by “proximity.” The missile was supposed to detonate when it came within a pre-set distance from the target. And we’re not talking about a small distance here; the mission defined “proximity” as something like 400 yards from the target. That was enough for a kill, with a fighter-bomber. Shrapnel packed around the warhead would then spray in a fan at the target’s center of mass. You didn’t need to hit a fighter-bomber very hard to bring it down; if just one shrapnel fragment hit the target, it would almost certainly go through a vital engine component or control system.

The problem with the Patriot was the same one that made every Cold-War weapons system so ridiculous: Nobody wanted to fight the kind of war they were designed for. Patriot was supposed to defend NATO ground forces in an all-out conventional war with the Warsaw Pact. And that whole scenario was a lie, from the ground up. There was never going to be a conventional NATO/Warsaw Pact war. The Soviets were the most ultra-cautious empire in history, as shown by the fact that they dissolved without firing a shot. They were never going to attack, because the US was the whack-job in this showdown, and no one knew what we might or might not do, depending on the President’s mood and/or meds.

(By the way, I don’t know of a single other huge empire which died without putting up any fight at all. Anybody out there know of one?)

If this massive NATO war had ever kicked off, it would have been a very quick Soviet victory (America was willing to fight to the last West German, but the West Germans weren’t). So after West Germany collapsed, the war would have reached its second stage: American tactical nuclear retaliation. And after that…who knows? The end of the world? Stalemate? Cocktails at Yalta? But whatever scenario you imagine would not have involved the sort of war the Patriot was designed for – if you’re naïve enough to believe that these Reagan-era weapons were actually designed to work at all.

The Patriot entered service in 1981, and for a decade did exactly what it was supposed to do: make money for Raytheon shareholders, with a nice cut for friendly DoD procurement officers and various Congress members.

And then came 1991, when American found itself engaged in actual warfare.

Saddam lost his shirt fighting Iran (with our off-and-on help) and started acting like a bankrupt gambling addict, staring around for some way to make a quick killing. He looked south and saw Kuwait…and you know, after living in Kuwait last year, I have to say I’ve become a lot more sympathetic with the late Mister Hussein. Kuwait just begs to be invaded. Every time you see one of the privileged “real” Kuwaitis abusing a South Asian servant or cutting your bus off in traffic, you can’t help thinking about how weak these people are, and how rich, how very, very rich, they are. And how easy it’d be to roll over them.

Saddam looked south and saw that weakness and blitzkrieged Kuwait in August 1990. The Kuwaiti army (the bastards who fired me on my first day for a war nerd column written ten years earlier) collapsed within two days, and may I say: nya, nya and indeed nyah. The US was then forced into the unusual position of using its weapon as actual…weapons. Weirded the whole defense industry right out. They’d never planned for that contingency.

Saddam’s strategy for keeping the US from rescuing its Kuwaiti puppet was simple: Scare ’em. The whole “Vietnam Syndrome,” the idea the US can’t handle casualties. Which is sometimes true (Mogadishu 1993) and sometimes not nearly true enough (Iraq 2003-2008). He had his Mouth of Sauron, Tariq Aziz, issue lots of threats about body bags, and he rattled his sabers, or to be more precise, his Scuds.

Saddam’s air force wasn’t going to scare anybody, but his Scuds did. The Scud, which rocketed to stardom and entered American slang only when Saddam started waving them around, is a huge, unguided Soviet Hell weapon. No computers, no pilot, just pure Euclidean geometry with a little chemistry thrown in. Point it at the compass direction you happen to dislike, do a little algebra, adjust the angle, drain or add some fuel, and you’re gassed up and ready to obliterate a city. But that only works if you have the tactical nuclear warheads the Soviets intended the Scud to carry. With a nuclear warhead, a Scud has no need to be accurate; anything within a kilometer will do the job.

Saddam didn’t have any nuclear warheads, no matter what the right-wing press tried to say to the contrary. All the Iraqis had were the pitiful heavy explosive warheads that both superpowers retrofitted on their tactical nuke missiles when they had a quiet consensual wimpout after seeing what H-bombs could do.

With those feeble warheads, the most a Scud could do was crumple an apartment building, if it got lucky, or wake up the lizards a few miles out of town if the crew had dropped a zero on the fuel equations or guessed wrong about the azimuth.

That’s the thing to remember about all conventional weapons designed after 1950: they’re odd, unprecedented gadgets, dialed-down to almost zero, intended as a way to cycle capital to shareholders in the US and Soviet oligarchies without letting it fall into the hands of us nobodies.

Saddam’s HE-armed Scuds were weak weapons, as they showed during Iraq’s long, losing war with Iran. Iraq fired 200 Scuds at Iranian cities, killing only about 2,000 civilians.

The Scud, when armed with a conventional warhead, was nothing but a very slightly more advanced V2, and like the V2 it was a desperation weapon, launched to create terror after more effectual military campaigns became impossible.

So, by the time Saddam started waving his Scuds and scaring America in late 1990, there was no real reason to be scared. But those Scuds happened to be positioned to hit the only place in the Mideast Americans cared about: Israel. Knowing that, Saddam said Iraq would attack Israel if the US intervened to save Kuwait:

….[Saddam] Hussein threatened that if his troops are attacked by U.S. and Arab allied forces, "Tel Aviv would receive the first blow"--even if Israel did not join in the hostilities. The threat followed a series of earlier Iraqi warnings that Israel would be the target of Iraqi missiles armed with deadly nerve agents.

Israeli casualties would be unacceptable, especially because the IDF would have attacked Iraq if a significant number of Israeli civilians were hit, spoiling the pan-Arab coalition that Bush Sr. and Powell, to give the devils their due, had done a very good job of putting together.

So the US had to stop them Scuds from impacting Tel Aviv. And that meant that DoD planners had to rummage through their whole ridiculous cold-war book of spells for an effective anti-ballistic missile weapon, and all they could find was the Patriot—which was never designed for that job.

There was huge publicity when Patriot batteries arrived in Israel (less when they came to Saudi). And when the first Scuds started flying toward Israel, and the brave little Patriots went up to meet them, it was the kind of cheesy story the suckers love, an automated remake of the whole Spitfire bit from WW II.

Then the corrections started to trickle in, once the war was over and it was safe to risk sounding unpatriotic (if you were an American reporter) or ungrateful (if you were an Israeli).

And what came out is that the whole story, heroic Patriot bringing down big bad Scud, made no sense. In the first place, the dreaded Scuds were lousy weapons, way over-hyped. The big terror was supposedly gas warheads, but no such warheads were used. The only gas-warfare casualties were ODs from panicked civilians who injected themselves with the antidote, Atropine. I’ve never tried Atropine, but the effects sound very much like the bad speed you used to get in the Bay Area (when you could get any at all):

ventricular fibrillation, supraventricular or ventricular tachycardiadizzinessnausea, blurred vision, loss of balance, dilated pupils, photophobia, dry mouth and potentially extreme confusion, dissociative hallucinations and excitation….

At least those Israelis got their stuff for free, as they tend to do, rather than paying the Prohibition prices we used to cough up.

Iraq fired a total of 42 Scuds at Israel, and 46 at Saudi Arabia before the Iraqis fled Kuwait. That’s a total of 86 Scud attacks. If you’re old enough, you probably remember all the hysteria about those incoming scuds, with the warning sirens and the network coiffures trying to look panicked. But I bet you don’t know how many Israelis and Saudis were killed by Scuds.

One Israeli. And one Saudi. Total.

The only Scud strike that killed a significant number of people was a lucky hit on a US military dorm in Dhahran that left 28 sleeping GIs dead,

And that one came long after Iraq had lost all hope of using Scuds to deter the US ground advance.

So, at the end of the war, the great Scud threat had fizzled, and the Patriot was in the position of the elephant repellent in the old joke: “You see any elephants around here? Then it must be working.” It looked like the brave little ABM had stopped the big bad Scud…unless the non-nuclear Scud was just a trash weapon in the first place, which nobody in that hysterical media habitat wanted to admit.

Then US and Israeli experts started collecting fallen Scud carcasses, checking for blast damage, trying to figure out how many had actually been killed by Patriot missiles. And that turned out to be much more complicated than anyone had considered.

If a Scud falls in the desert, as yer Philosophy major might ask, does it count as a Patriot kill? No, actually. Iraq’s Scuds were a mess, with a habit of falling out of the sky on their own. And how likely was it, if we go back to the simple Newtonian physics involved, that the Patriot’s tiny proximity-fused warhead would even deflect, let alone bring down, a Scud?

Get a good bowler, say Jesus Quintana (that creep can roll), to send a bowling ball full speed down the alley. Then roll a normal-size billiard ball at it, at the same speed, and see which one gets deflected. And the disparity between a Scud and a Patriot is actually much bigger than the bowling/billiard ball gap.

The Scud-B, the basic Iraqi model, weighs 5,900 kg (13,000 pounds). The Patriot weighs about one-tenth that much, but that isn’t even the real comparison, because these 1991-model Patriots weren’t designed to hit the target, just get near it and detonate a very small warhead. So it was more like rolling a bowling ball down the alley, then trying to roll a billiard ball at it with a firecracker taped on, in the hope of deflecting the bowling ball into the gutter.

Or imagine trying to stop a falling grain silo by tossing a hand grenade at it. Unlikely.

The best chance a Patriot had against a huge tube like the Scud-B was to ignite the fuel or detonate the warhead. The first Patriot model used tiny fragments as shrapnel (about two grams each), but as the mission evolved from killing fragile jets to bringing down grain-silo sized unguided Scuds, the size of the fragments grew, up to 45 grams, about two ounces, in the PAC-2 model.

Check out this classic Cold-War video to see the C model in action, accompanied by Casio soundtrack and Disney narration.

Eventually, American defense contractors were forced, against every instinct they had, to come up with something as hard, straightforward, and primitive as the Scud itself.

And that’s how the strangest Patriot of all, the “kinetic energy” variant, was born. “Kinetic energy” is one of those wonderful DoD terms that make blunt facts seem very arcane. It means, basically, “hit a rock with a rock.” The PAC-3 version of the Patriot, the “kinetic energy” version, was the first model designed to hit the target, not just get near it and spray shrapnel at it. The PAC-3 still used shrapnel, (called a “lethality enhancer” in that wonderful DoD lingo) but that was a backup system, an added option; the basic weapon was simply a big heavy weight thrown at the target at very high speed.

It’s a matter of what one great cartoonist called “Relativistic Baseball,” meaning if you throw an ordinary baseball fast enough, say two-thirds the speed of light, you could destroy an entire city with it. The Patriot PAC-3 obviously doesn’t approach that kind of velocity, but it does reach a speed high enough to burn into the target and ignite whatever’s inside it, warhead, propellant, even fuselage.

It’s a kind of weapon the original Cold-War designers could never have imagined. They had no computing power worth mentioning, so they made up for it with warhead power, often nukes. Both the Patriot and the Scud have ancestors which used nuclear warheads.

The Scud only makes sense as a weapon when armed with a nuclear warhead. Without it, it’s a lame retro gimmick, a bigger and more expensive V2.

But the Patriot has a big-bang ancestor too: the Nike Hercules MIM-14, which used a nuclear warhead to blow up anything within a sphere the size of a small city, in theory saving the inhabitants of American cities from nuclear annihilation, while bathing them in fallout which would give them free tanning for life, what was left of it.

Compare the Patriot MIM PAC-3 with the MIM-14 and you see a very weird progression, from massive warhead to…no warhead at all. Computing power replaces explosive power, or tries to.

It’s an odd development. I can’t think of another moment in military history when contending powers dialed down their weapons to something close to zero, as the US and Soviet developers did.

There’s a line in Book of the New Sun:

“The armies of this age are weak.”

I’m not sure you can quite say that, but I will say that the armies of this age are just plain weird.

So, did those Saudi Patriots bring down those alleged Houthi Scuds? Since the Saudis aren’t one of those journalism-friendly armies (or countries), it’s difficult to know. It seems unlikely that the Houthi could have smuggled three gigantic Scuds to Saada intact and launched them effectively. In fact, who knows if the missiles launched were actually Scuds. If they were then it’s just as likely that the Houthis who fired them did it wrong as that the Saudi crews -- if the Patriots were actually crewed by Saudis – knocked them out of the sky.

Notice all the ‘ifs’ in this scenario. That’s typical of any Patriot-Scud engagement. In a fight-to-the-death between two intentionally dialed-down, weak weapons, the natural outcome is a fizzle.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]