WASHINGTON -- The Patriot missile system, hailed by the Raytheon Co. and the Army as a symbol of U.S. technological mastery, was in fact an often-troubled weapon that cannot be proven to have destroyed more than one Scud warhead of the 47 engaged in the Persian Gulf War, several independent U.S. and Israeli military experts have concluded.
Even that lone success -- captured on film by Israeli military scientists over Tel Aviv toward the end of the war -- is still a matter of some debate.
This radical conclusion, from experts in both countries who have had access to the classified military data, is starkly at odds with the Pentagon's public score card on the Patriot's performance.
The current Raytheon and Pentagon assertions, announced by Army Brig. Gen. Robert Drolet last Dec. 6, are that the missile "successfully engaged over 80 percent" of the Scuds that threatened allied forces and civilians in Saudi Arabia and "over 50 percent" of those in Israel.
The Army stuck to those figures this week. "We have scrubbed and done a relook at those numbers, and we stand by them," says David Harris, the director of public affairs for the Army Missile Command in Huntsville, Ala.
But after reviewing the classified studies as they have become available in the defense community, independent analysts told the Boston Globe that the Army's conclusions are insupportable for the following reasons:
* There is a severe shortage of valid scientific data in the form of enhanced high-speed and infrared photography or electronic data recordings.
* The best such evidence that does exist -- almost all of it from Israeli military research -- shows just one probable warhead kill and two possible warheads hit out of some 17 engagements over Israel.
* The supporting information -- from damage studies, eyewitness testimony, fragmented computer readouts and other sources -- is unreliable.
Speaking on the record for the first time about the Patriot's performance -- which he monitored daily during the war -- retired Israeli Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun told the Globe he has the highest respect for the missile as an anti-aircraft system and for its potential development for use against Scuds and other ballistic missiles in the future.
But in the Gulf War, Ben-Nun said, only one of what appears to have been 17 Scud warheads fired upon by Patriot batteries in Israel can "almost for sure" be judged a kill, while only two other warheads were possible hits.