Jeffrey LewisMissile Defender Day

Patriot launch unit rearmed after making first “kill.” Battery A, 2d Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, after becoming the first Patriot unit to successfully engage a SCUD missile, 18 January 1991, XVIII Airborne Corps History Office photograph by SPC Randall R. Anderson, DS-F-117-07.

Janne Nolan informed me that today was “Missile Defender Day” — when Riki Ellison and the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance hand out the Missile Defender of the Year Awards:

The Missile Defender of the Year is awarded to the best U.S. missile defense Solider, Sailor, Airmen and National Guardsmen for the year. The event was held on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the first successful war time use of active U.S. missile defenses to protect and defend our armed forces and allies.

On January 15th, 1991 soldiers from the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade changed modern day warfare forever when they successfully intercepted an Al Hussein Missile launched from Iraq headed towards Dhahran, Saudi Arabia with a Patriot Missile Defense Battery. This heroic act was played out multiple times in Dhahran, Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

I presume, despite the language of the award and the fact that all eleven winners (2010, 2011, and 2012) have been men, that women are eligible to be the Missile Defender of the Year.

So, there are a few things that confuse me here.


The war didn’t start until the 17th.

The US began the air war on January 17, not January 15. Iraq started firing Scuds on January 18, but did not fire a Scud at Dhahran until January 20.  Don’t take my word for it, here is a chart from the Defense Department.  (E.KTO is Eastern Kuwait Theater of Operations, which included Dhahran, Al Jubayl, Bahrain, and Qatar):

So, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance has its dates all wrong.


The  “first successful war time use of active U.S. missile defenses” was a false alarm.

The phrase “the first successful war time use of active U.S. missile defenses to protect and defend our armed forces and allies” is subject to an interesting clarification.

Battery A, 2d Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, 11th Brigade did, in fact, attempt a combat intercept on the first day of the Gulf War. Here is an account from an Army history of the Patriot:

At about half past four on the morning of 17 January, shortly after the air campaign began, the on-duty crew of Battery A, 2d Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, 11th Brigade, a Patriot unit located to protect the Dhahran airport, was alerted and signaled to don gas masks and chemical warfare suits. Without satellite cuing, Battery A loosed two Patriot missiles into the sky over the airport. Looking from a distance like Roman candles but with a thunderous clap indicating something far mightier, the Patriots leaped skyward, maneuvered, and apparently engaged their target. It was over in a matter of seconds. In the process, history’s first wartime engagement of a tactical rocket by an antitactical ballistic missile seemed to have occurred.

So, how could Battery A, 2d Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, 11th Brigade engage a missile that did not exist? Notice the weasel words: “apparently” and “seemed.”  It was a false alarm. There was no missile.   After the war, it became clear that these were false alarms.  Here is the account from a DOD information sheet entitled, Iraq’s Scud Ballistic Missiles (2000):

The first actual ballistic missile attack against the KTO occurred against the Dhahran area at 9:43 PM on January 20, 1991. However, false targets involving Patriot reactions began on January 18, 1991, without warnings from national surveillance assets. Veterans aware of these engagements believed, at least at the time, that incoming missiles threatened them. Most reports did not identify the January 18th incidents as reactions to Patriot false targets until after the war when the discrepancy became public knowledge. For example, during the war, one Army document noted for the 18th that Patriots intercepted a single Scud in the Dhahran area. Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery got credit for a first successful Scud intercept. An element of the XVIII Airborne Corps reported seeing a Scud missile heading south. Three powerful explosions occurred over Dhahran Air Base. This report claimed that three missiles had been fired at Dhahran. The same document indicated that Patriots engaged one incoming missile but that another hit Khobar, an area where United States forces were billeted. The entire Dhahran area was reported at MOPP Level four with lower MOPP levels ordered further west. A Fox chemical reconnaissance vehicle searched for evidence of chemical warfare agent but found none. One chronology stated that the explosions happened when a friendly aircraft released bombs into an ordnance jettison area. We found only one contemporaneous record that indicated (correctly) that the reports of ballistic missiles launched at Dhahran on the 18th were erroneous.

I gather there were a lot of false alarms in the first few days of the war, some of which may have been due to software glitches.  GAO claimed that the Army modified the software six times during the conflict.

So, the “Missile Defender of the Year Award” commemorates a false alarm.  Fitting, really.


Also, they probably missed the first real Scud fired at them.

It is not at all clear  to me that the first engagement with an actual missile on January 20th was successful.

You are probably aware that the Army reduced its assessment of the effectiveness of the Patriot from the initial euphoric reports during the war. The Army ultimately concluded the success rate was closer to 56 percent than the originally claimed 96 percent. This is a really complicated discussion. The simple thing to note is that the the Army used launch detection and ground impact data, as well as after action reports, to determine which intercepts had been successful.  Reports by the then-General Accounting Office and Steven Hildreth at the Congressional Research Service explain the limitations to such a method in great detail.

Ted Postol caused a sir by using a different method: examining publicly available video images of intercepts.  By simply watching the videos, Postol concluded that few, if any, of the intercepts were successful.  Raytheon was unhappy. But the classified studies say we hit them!

The American Physical Society’s ad hoc Panel on Public Affairs wrote a nice summary of this debate.  The ad hoc panel was concerned with methodology, ultimately endorsing the video image method and recommending an integrated study of Patriot performance using both approaches. The Army, understandably, was over the discussion.  Having completed two studies, as far as I can tell they had no appetite for a third that would have probably reduce the success rate a third time.

I do not know if the Army ultimately assessed either of the first pair of real engagements on January 20th as successful or not — the studies remain classified — but Postol and Lewis have video for at least one, and possibly both, of the shots — and code them as misses. (I would like to know, for the historical record, the actual date, place and unit involved in the first successful intercept as credited by the Army given its final assessment of whatever-percent effectiveness.)

Riki Ellison (50) and three other San Francisco 49ers unsuccessfully attempt to intercept Eric Dickerson.

So, to recap, nothing happened on January 15, the unit credited with the first combat engagement were firing at a false alarm and, when the Patriot batteries finally had a chance to shoot at a real missile heading toward Dhahran, they may have missed.  Reading all this, one might get the sense that Riki Ellison and the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance are somewhat careless about facts. Perish the thought.

Janne’s first reaction, on the other hand, went to the young people who are (and I am paraphrasing) stuck with crummy assignments in marginal missile defense missions who hear that they are getting awards for their work.  I am not quite convinced of the propriety of allowing themselves to be used as uniformed props by a missile defense advocacy organization, but one of those guys is stationed in Greenland.

One can hardly begrudge that guy a free trip to DC and a 49ers jersey, even if it is to celebrate a false alarm.

The 11th Air Defense Artillery brigade might not have scored the first combat intercept of a ballistic missile in 1991, but seem to have won the 2011 Fort Bliss Turkey Bowl by a score of 20-0.  That’s something.


  1. David (History)

    I suspect that the MOS (military occupational specialty) associated with missile defense is considered combat. Therefore, women are not allowed to be in that MOS.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      No, I don’t think so. There are a ton of pictures of woman participating in Patriot training with Polish forces.


      U.S. Army Cpl. Maria E. Sandoval poses with Polish trainees during air defense training in Morag, Poland earlier this month. (photo by Lt. Col. Daniel E. Herrigstad)

      Here are two more (incidentally, including a woman among the Polish troops):

      Morag patriot

      In case you are wondering about the sleeve insignia, the Army redesignated the 357th Air and Missile Defense Detachment as the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense in 2012. You can watch the soldiers swap their sleeve insignias 17 seconds into this video:

  2. Jason (History)

    I was there for the “false alarm launch”. It looked just like Roman Candle as described. It was an interesting time in history.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It seems like the software was really buggy for the first week or so, which I guess is to be expected when a system is pushed into a new mission it wasn’t designed to handle. I’d really like to know what that was like.

    • cd (History)

      Wasn’t there an issue with clock drift and accuracy in the Patriot batteries that only turned up in the Gulf too?

      yep, there was. Had to be rebooted every so often. One take-away lesson is not to store time as floats in your guidance system, I suppose.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    “Without satellite cuing” is kind of intriguing. Although it will probably remain classified forever, it would be interesting to discover how DSP was and wasn’t used back then.