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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Praising the embattled Patriot missile system’s performance during the recent war against Iraq, the Army’s top air defender said the controversial missile-killer “did a fantastic job, a record that will be hard to equal.”

“I’m terribly proud of what the soldiers and systems did,” Maj. Gen. Stanley E. Green said in an exclusive interview with Stars and Stripes.

The Patriot is credited with intercepting at least nine short-range Iraqi missiles during the conflict. That’s out of about 20 Iraqi missile attacks, said Green, commander of the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Center, Fort Bliss, Texas. He added some of those “were not engageable.”

“Hopefully what we’ve demonstrated to potential enemies is that they’re wasting their money on ballistic missiles,” he said.

Definitive analysis is under way, Green said. The Patriot is being investigated in at least three friendly fire incidents during the conflict:

March 22 — Two British airmen were killed when a Patriot missile downed their GR4 Tornado near the Iraq-Kuwait border.March 24 — An Air Force F-16CJ “Wild Weasel” attacked a Patriot radar south of Baghdad after warning indicators told the pilot the missile system was about to engage his aircraft.April 2 — Officials believe a Patriot was also to blame when a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet was shot from sky during a battle south of Baghdad. The pilot was killed.The friendly fire incidents, called “blue on blue” among many in the military, have given fresh ammunition to critics of the system.

‘Greatly troubling’

“Any blue on blue is greatly troubling,” said Green. “And No. 1, our thoughts go out to the families involved.”

But Green, who led a Patriot task force in Israel during the conflict, defended the missile system’s performance.

As of mid-April, he said, there had more than 15,800 sorties flown over Iraq. If investigators prove that the Patriot is to fault in both shoot downs, “that puts it in the realm of 99.8 percent success of sorties not being engaged by their own people,” he said.

“It’s a rather far stretch to characterize it as a disappointing system.”

Others disagree.

“It seems like there is a systemic problem here,” said Victoria Samson, an analyst for Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Taking exception with Martin’s success rate statistics, Samson said the Patriot is “supposed to be defending against missiles not aircraft, and it’s made some really serious, basic errors.”

In an air war completely dominated by friendly aircraft, she said she doesn’t understand how the Patriot could have targeted coalition jets at all.

Samson also points out that at least two cruise missile attacks appear to have slipped by the Patriot completely unnoticed.

On March 20, correspondents embedded with troops near Kuwait City, reported that an Iraqi Seersucker missile put a 50-foot-wide crater just outside the Marine headquarters camp, shaking the hardened command post and sending troops scurrying for bunkers and the gas masks.

“It didn’t even show up on the Patriot radars,” Samson said.

A second cruise missile slammed into the harbor in Kuwait City in the middle of the night on March 29, injuring two. Again, said Samson, the Patriot never picked up the low-flying cruise missile, believed to be a Chinese-made Silkworm missile.

Early problems

Originally designed to defend troops and air bases from Soviet attack jets, the Patriot instead made its combat debut during the 1991 Gulf War as a makeshift shield against Iraq’s fleet of Scuds.

During that war, there were no problems with the system mistakenly hitting friendly aircraft. But then, it’s unclear exactly what it did hit.

Initially touted by the Pentagon as one of the war’s biggest success stories — credited with protecting Israel and Saudi Arabia from dozens of Iraqi Scuds — later investigations showed only a fraction were actually destroyed for certain.

“Nine percent of Patriot launches produced strong evidence, such as disabled Scuds embedded with Patriot fragments, that the target was destroyed,” according to a 1992 congressional report.

Investigators instead castigated Army officials for using shoddy data and overly optimistic analysis, writing it was “impossible to know with any precision how well the Patriot did in hitting battlefield targets.”

Things are being handled much differently this time around, Green said.

“Because it was so controversial last time 13 years ago, we know it’s going to come up again so we want to be able to provide the right data,” Green said. “That data is being reduced now so that we can say not only what we hit, but when we hit it and what our levels of effectiveness were.”

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