WASHINGTON -- The Iraqi missile that slammed into an American military barracks in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war, killing 28 people, penetrated air defenses because a computer failure shut down the American missile system designed to counter it, two Army investigations have concluded.
The Iraqi Scud missile hit the barracks in Al Khobar near Dhahran on Feb. 25, causing the war's single worst casualty toll for Americans. The allied Central Command said the next day that no Patriot missile had been fired to intercept the Scud, adding that the Scud had broken into pieces as it descended and was not identified as a threat by the Patriot radar system.
But further investigations determined that the Scud was intact when it hit the barracks, and was not detected because the Patriot's radar system was rendered inoperable by the computer failure.
"The radar system never saw the incoming missile," said Col. Bruce Garnett, who conducted one of the investigations. He recently retired as the Patriot project manager at the Army's Missile Command, in Huntsville, Ala.
The 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, at Fort Bliss, Texas, which operated all 20 Patriot batteries in Saudi Arabia, prepared a separate report that reached the same conclusions, an officer familiar with the inquiry said.
Army experts said in interviews that they knew within days that the Scud was intact when it hit and that a technical flaw in the radar system was probably to blame.
The problem was identified and corrected in all the Patriot batteries within weeks of the attack, officials said.
The Army investigations raise questions as to why the Pentagon and Central Command perpetuated the explanation that the Scud broke up.
Central Command officials denied that they were aware of the Army's initial findings of computer malfunction. "It was not something we had at all," said Lt. Col. Michael Gallagher, who was a Central Command spokesman in Riyadh.
During the war, American military officers were reluctant to discuss any weapon failings.
But even after the cease-fire, many officers were averse to say anything that might tarnish the one-sided allied victory over Baghdad's forces.
The senior Army official familiar with the investigations said the service would not comment on the inquiries until top-level service officials had reviewed the conclusions.
The performance of the Patriot system has since undergone some re-evaluation.
Some scientists recently asserted that use of the Patriot in Israel and Saudi Arabia might actually have increased the amount of explosive debris scattered over the landscape as Patriot as well as Scud warheads fell to earth.
Nevertheless, the weapon succeeded in intercepting virtually all of the Iraqi Scuds fired toward cities or military installations during the war.