SOUDA BAY, Crete — Their motto is “First to Fire.” But the reality is that their weapon is so expensive, so powerful and so specialized, they rarely do so at all.

Their mission is not of use in wars of counterinsurgency, keeping them from performing in Afghanistan, and, for the past five years, Iraq. Their training is usually done on computer. If they’ve seen their weapon at all, it’s while sitting in a secure location.

“The majority of our kids — 80 percent of them — have never seen the missile come out of the can,” said Col. Joe Fischetti, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade commander. “They need to experience that.”

But firing off Patriot missiles — the least sophisticated of which can travel 44 miles at a speed of Mach 3 — isn’t something that can happen often. The only place in Europe to fire the missiles is a NATO facility in Crete. Nor does it come cheap. “Funding is always an issue,” Fischetti said.

The cost, according to V Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, who approved the funding, was some $2 million.

So for 67 soldiers with the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery of the 69th ADA Brigade, to get to fire actual missiles at targets over Souda Bay, as they did last week — for the first time in four years — was something no one took lightly.

“It’s a pretty big moment,” said 1st Lt. Jason Menichetti.

The unit left Hanau, Germany, for Crete with what must be the Army’s most technologically complex equipment, and, their commander said, some of its brightest soldiers. “Probably the most technically and technologically sound of all the soldiers,” Fischetti said. “They’re very smart kids.”

“I don’t want to call it a reward,” Fischetti said before the exercise. “But it puts the icing on the cake.”

It took four months of preparation, followed by careful equipment moves by rail and by sea from several locations, not to mention computing some very difficult algorithms. By Wednesday, the Army-green missile launchers and control elements were all set to go and pointed out to sea atop a sunbaked and massive cliff. It looked like a scene out of World War II, but the weaponry was Space Age.

Everything worked, even better than expected, Fischetti said. “Everybody’s cheering, first when they come out of the can,” said Menichetti, “and again with the confirmed kill.”

“It felt really good,” said Staff Sgt. William Gould, who pushed the button sending the missile aloft for the first hit of the day, when Menichetti, after consulting with his higher command, gave him the order to engage the target. “It just felt awesome. I could hear it, and the van was shaking.”

Four Supersonic Target Rockets (STARs) — shot by contractors from an uninhabited Greek island nearby — were engaged and destroyed. The first three times, the crews fired two missiles at the target, as is customary. The fourth time, they fired just one.

Later, two drone targets were hit by a total of three missiles, he said.

Ten missiles fired in one day. “We thought it would take three days,” Fischetti said.

During the Cold War, at least six Patriot battalions were part of U.S. Army Europe, ready to fire missiles at Soviet aircraft. But the mission changed to counter anti-ballistic missiles in the late 1980s.

Now the 69th is the last remaining air defense artillery unit within USAREUR.

“Nobody cares if we can shoot down aircraft because we always have air superiority,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Donald Hendricks, the brigade’s system expert. “What everyone wants Patriot to do is shoot down missiles.”

The system has been controversial, not because people don’t think it’s a good idea, but because of questions about how well it works.

The anti-missile use of the Patriot debuted in the 1991 Gulf War, fired to defend against Scud missiles fired by Iraq. The Army initially said it had a 79 percent success rate against Scuds fired at Saudi Arabia and a 40 percent success rate against those fired at Israel. But outside analyses put the intercept rate at as low as zero, and Israel defense officials have said that only one, if any at all, of the Scuds fired into Israel was intercepted.

Next, Patriot batteries were deployed to protect troops in the 2003 Iraq invasion. With a vastly redesigned and upgraded system, they destroyed nine incoming missiles, according to a recent story in the Boston Globe.

But they were also involved in three friendly-fire incidents that killed two British aviators and one U.S. Navy aviator, whose F/A-18 was shot down by a Patriot missile near Karbala, Iraq.

A military review of that incident blamed the Patriot’s system, as well as problems in training and communications, according to the Globe story, which was published in December and based on documents filed in a lawsuit by the Navy pilot’s widow.

A filing in the case from an executive with the Raytheon Co., which makes the system, said that the system had difficulty distinguishing between friendly and enemy aircraft, according to the story.

But, said Fischetti, who commanded a Patriot battalion in Iraq during the invasion, “Much of that has been resolved by operators being better informed and trained.”

Finicky system requires precision

SOUDA BAY, Crete — It was 8:10 a.m. The target was in the air.

In a room high above the ancient cliffs where the missiles were loaded and ready in their cans, anticipation peaked to see the first Patriot missile fired by a U.S. Army Europe unit in four years.

Seconds ticked by. Then more seconds.

“They’re trying to engage it; the system won’t let them,” said Col. Joe Fischetti, commander of the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.

By 8:15, the disappointment was confirmed: The target was in the water.

“Now what?” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, commander of V Corps.

Firing a Patriot missile, intercepting and destroying a missile coming your way is not a simple or routine matter, of course. After the Army said in early 2003 that it had shot down four of six Iraqi missiles with its PAC-3 Patriots, experts said that, if verified, it would apparently be “the first undisputed success of a battlefield anti-missile system.”

Firing the anti-missile weapon at targets in training five years later isn’t easy either. That’s partly because the PAC-3s cost $3 million each; they’re saved for combat. An older version, the PAC-1, originally designed to shoot down aircraft, is used instead.

But the rest of the system — communications, command and control, radar surveillance and missile guidance — are all of the newer design. So unless the target’s flight path is calculated just right, the system determines the target is a type of missile that the old PAC-1s can’t possibly hit — and refuses to fire.

This happened to a German army Patriot unit training at the NATO Missile Firing Installation (NAMFI) on Crete five months ago. “The system was saying, ‘Nope,’ said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Donald Hendricks, the brigade’s Patriot system expert, at a briefing the day before the Wednesday exercise.

It was a lesson learned by other NATO countries. “Just knowing they weren’t allowed to take a shot made us ask the questions we might not have asked,” Fischetti said.

But were they the right questions? And were the answers correct? Would they be able to take a shot?

Nearly an hour elapsed as officials waited for air traffic control to give them the all clear sign. In the meantime, the problem in the first attempt was determined: NAMFI safety officials had requested that the target’s intercept be five kilometers farther out to sea than calculations had provided for. The 69th had agreed to give it a go in a spirit of cooperation. “We were hoping,” Hendricks said, but doubtful.

On the second try, the intercept point was moved closer.

It was almost 9 a.m., and 13 seconds until target launch. The room was silent and tense. Seconds passed.

Then down on the cliff, a missile on a launcher pointed out to sea suddenly lit up, and a Patriot was streaming up into the air trailed by smoke and white vapor and BOOM! Then it happened again, as the second missile fired.

It was thrilling, even to seasoned soldiers.

“Oh, baby!” Hunzeker said.

“Awesome!” Fischetti said.

— Nancy Montgomery

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