Jeffrey LewisNo Shoot Down

In the comments over my recent post on Libya’s remaining stockpile of Scud B missiles, some commentators asked about press reports that NATO aircraft shot down a Scud B.

I can now confirm that did not/not happen.

Col. David Lapan, Director of the Press Office at the Department of Defense, told Global Security Newswire’s Elaine Grossman that  “no shootdown occurred”  in response to a question about reports that a NATO warplane had intercepted a Libyan Scud missile launched from the Sirte area on Monday 22 August 2011.

Perhaps more amusingly, Elaine also got a voicemail from an unnamed NATO spokeswoman that “It’s absolutely not true.  We haven’t made any intervention.  Your issue, we don’t confirm it at all.”

I presume the NATO spokeswoman meant interception.   (Elaine gave men permission to publish these because GSN has a busy schedule.  And anyway, who publishes negative results?)

Network Centric Airborne Defense Element

So why was anyone interested at all?  After all, everybody knows that combat aircraft can’t shoot down ballistic missiles.

A perfect example is that pilots in Desert Storm reported being able to see Iraqi Scud missiles after they were launched, but unable to do anything about it.  In a very readable account of the role of the F-15E in Desert Storm, Strike Eagle: Flying the F-15E in the Gulf War, William Smallwood related this story by a pilot named Two Dogs McIntyre:

… when we get this call from AWACS. ‘A Scud has been launched at coordinates such and such! We’ve already seen it of course.  It’s a huge flame and your first reaction is that it’s a SAM and you want to make a defensive reaction.  Then you see that it is going straight up.

Now, it turns out “theoretically” Two Dogs might have been able to use an AMRAAM in a missile defense role. “Theoretically, AMRAAM can intercept Scud missiles in flight,” an Air Force official told Defense Daily in 1992,”but the shooter has to be so well located (relative to the Scud) to launch the AMRAAM that there is not a high probability of kill.”  Tactical Air Command completed an early 1992 study on how the Air Force “might be able to play a role in theater missile defense (TMD) by intercepting tactical ballistic missiles (TBM) in the early boost phase after they are launched” that examined the option of a modified AMRAAM.

It took a long time, but in 2006, Raytheon won a contract for key elements of the what was called the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element — a system that centered on an extended-range AIM-120 AMRAAM converted for use against boosting ballistic missiles.  Still, NCADE seemed lost amid a number of not-very-promising boost-phase options before March 2011, when the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency signed a Memorandum of Agreement “to explore design and development of the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE).”

So NCADE is reasonably close to be flight-testable.  Whether it will provide a cost-effective operational capability remains to be seen.  During Desert Storm, the Army deployed the Patriot for the first time in a missile defense role.  The Air Force also developed a completely new conventional bunker-buster, the GBU-28, in less than six weeks.

Some of us wondered whether the Air Force might have tried the same thing with NCADE in Odyssey Dawn, although that appears now to be merely wishful thinking. Still, it was fun to read about NCADE, which I had overlooked.

Anatomy of Rumor

So, what was the source of this crazy rumor?  The short version is Al Jazeera TV.

The long version is a little more interesting and may serve as a cautionary tale about how media practices can “launder” bad reporting.

Al Jazeera TV initially reported ” “A NATO warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home city east of Tripoli.” The quotation is from the Al Jazeera blog.  It seems the claim was originally made on air, but I can find neither a clip nor a transcript.  Yasmine Saleh at Reuters picked up the Al Jazeera TV report, reporting that “A NATO warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home city east of Tripoli, Al-Jazeera TV reported on Monday citing information received by one of its correspondents.”

Now, how the correspondent acquired this information is not explained.  Did NATO announce it?  The opposition? A reader with a passing knowledge of missile defense and combat aircraft should immediately be wary of the sourcing, given what an unlikely claim this is.

In a separate Reuters story, however, a different reporter named Phil Stewart got a “US defense official” on condition of anonymity to confirm “Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fired a suspected scud missile.” Stewart’s story, however, does not mention any intercept.

These two separate Reuters articles got tangled, leading lots of other reporters, like Molly Hennessy-Fiske at the Los Angeles Times, to claim that Reuters had confirmed the shoot-down.  It seemed that the two Reuters reports, although written by different authors, became a single story with the Al Jazeera claim report now attributed to Stewart’s anonymous US defense official.  The Irish Times, for example, published a story credited to “agencies” that asserted that “A Nato warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gadafy’s home city east of Tripoli, a US defence official confirmed.”

The next sentence in the Irish Times story — “The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, could not immediately say what the intended target was.” — mirrors the structure of the Reuters report by Phil Stewart, with the juicy Al Jazeera tidbit about the shootdown thrown in.

Surely most of the blame must go to Al Jazeera for its bad reporting.  But some of the blames also falls on the practice, widespread, of attributing a story to a news wire or a papers rather than the individual reporters.  That is something I try not to do on this blog.

So, there you have it. There was no shootdown.


  1. Noscud (History)

    Well, being in the right place at the right time would be essential, but keep in mind that in the early stages of flight, the Scud is not moving that fast and would be well within the intercept envelope of an AIM-120 (AMRAAM), especially the ones operational today. In fact, depending on the location, it might be even more effectively intercepted by a AIM-9 which, even though it has shorter range, accelerates faster, is more agile, and guides on IR, of which a Scud puts out a lot. I agree, though, that it likely didn’t happen

    One other note, regarding the story from Desert Strom. “Two Dogs” would never been able to use an AMRAAM to shoot down a Scud with an AMRAAM, even “theoretically”. The main reason is simple: AMRAAM was not yet operational at the time of Desert storm and so there were none to use.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I recall that a very small number of AMRAAMs were deployed on select F-15s during Desert Storm but none were fired.

      Someone may want to confirm my recollection.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Ah, yes, here it is in the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War Report. There were a small number of AMRAAMs deployed in Desert Storm:

      The forces in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm deployed both old and new equipment. Some systems had been used in combat before the Gulf War, but most were not yet combat proven. Some equipment still was in the developmental stage when the war began and was used before completion of normal research and development and test and evaluation programs. Acquisition of a number of these systems was accelerated and sent directly to the theater for use by US forces.

      The fact the United States has such a menu of defense hardware in research or in development with options to deploy contributed to the ability to respond on 2 August in at least two ways. First, there was a highly modernized force of aircraft, ships and ground forces with appropriate C3I deployed in significant numbers. In addition, there were numerous systems in various stages of R&D, some of which were accelerated to the field. There also was an industrial base and an acquisition process able to take several needed items from concept through R&D and deployment to the field during the conflict. These systems and technologies were in either in research (early in development), in full scale engineering development, or in early stages of development before deployment.

      Perhaps the salient example of a system in an early stage of research was the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). This prototype system provided both wide area coverage and more focused views of moving or fixed equipment of interest. Other examples of R&D systems that were accelerated and fielded included the Constant Source intelligence fusion system, the Standoff Land-Attack Missile (SLAM), the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), JSTARS Ground Support Module (GSM), and the Light Applique System Technique ceramic armor for the USMC Light Armored Vehicles (LAV).

      It looks like the AMRAAMs were deployed to the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Gorillas) flying F-15Cs at the end of Desert Storm. Two Dogs was an F-15E pilot in the 336th (Rocketeers or just Rockets), I think. (Or maybe the 335th Chiefs.)

      So, you are literally correct, Two Dogs would not have had an AMRAAM. Consider it poetic license. I always try to include strong transitions in blog posts.

      (PS: I observe that the 335th “Chiefs” patch is a Native American in profile. They’ll probably end up like my Peoria Chiefs, with a damned Dalmation for a mascot. Chiefs? Oh, we meant Fire Chiefs.)

  2. Magoo (History)

    An interesting exchange which brings me to question for Jeffrey. Reports of the 1991 war indicate that the presence of the mobile launched Scuds was discovered only after they were launched. To the best of my knowledge the USAF was unable to locate mobile launchers on the ground until after the desert was physically combed by Special Forces patrols. What then was the efficacy of the loudly touted “counterforce” strategy advocated to deal with Soviet nuclear forces that bristled with mobile based missiles? And, two decades later, what is the US military potential to neutralise the fast increasing deployment of mobile launchers?

  3. Noscud (History)

    To the best of my knowledge, the AMRAAMs in Desert Storm were “captive carries” during the last few days of the war, after the air threat was neutralized. None were fired at enemy aircraft. Valuable data was no doubt obtained which would be applied when the system came into service, but I do not believe AMRAAM was operational during Desert Storm

  4. Rex Brynen (History)

    What about subsequent reports (after August 22) that additional SCUDs were intercepted by a US Navy vessel–any word on those?

  5. HistProf (History)

    The Army mans and deploys Patriot batteries, not the Air Force.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Thanks for pointing that out. Somehow “Army” got replaced when I changed the structure of that paragraph. It’s fixed now.

  6. HistProf (History)

    As Rex Brynen points out, there are reports suggesting that any SCUD intercept was conducted by sea-based missile defense from a US destroyer. See the US Naval Institute Blog for a discussion.
    One of the comments notes:

    “A ballistic trajectory ground range Sirte to Misrata is about 190 km (mostly over water). That length is too short to get you enough time in the exoatmosphere for a SM-3 intercept.

    The description of the intercept sounds like Sea Based Terminal (SBT), which would make it SM-2 Block IV. This was demonstrated by USS Lake Erie in FTM-14 June ’08.”

  7. Mike Plunkett (History)

    Sadly this shoot down story seems to have lodged in the popular conciousness. Whilst listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning I heard Dr Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, part of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, blithely note that a NATO fighter shot down a Scud in Libya. This was in the context of a discussion on Syria’s chemical and biological capability and implied that we didn’t need to worry about Scuds and the like, because we could do BMD even with fighter aircraft.

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