WASHINGTON -- The Patriot missile, a star of the Persian Gulf war now tarnished by criticism, may have destroyed only one of the 90 Scud missiles Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel, experts told Congress yesterday.
In testimony before the House Government Operations Committee, the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- said that the Army could not adequately document its claims that the Patriot intercepted 80 percent of theScuds fired at Saudi Arabia and 50 percent of those lobbed at Israel.
Steve Hildreth, an expert with the Congressional Research Service, added that by the Army's own methodology, the Patriot intercepted and destroyed the actual warhead of only a single Scud missile.
Iraq's Scuds were regularly seen exploding in flight after Patriot missiles were shot aloft to intercept them.
But independent experts now believe that many of those missiles, which were crudely welded together, actually broke up during flight.
In those cases where the Patriots intercepted the Scuds, they regularly failed to hit the warhead, leaving the missile's most deadly component to fall intact to the ground, the experts said.
Army Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, deputy chief of staff for operations andplans, defended the Patriot yesterday, calling it "a terrific success story, tactically, psychologically and politically" that "exceeded our expectations."
But General Garner acknowledged that in response to congressional inquiries, the Army had lowered its assessments of the Patriot's successes.
The Patriots were successful against more than 70 percent of the Scuds Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia during the conflict and more than 40 percent of those fired at Israel, General Garner told the panel.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee investigating the Patriot's performance, called on Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to order an independent evaluation of the Army's analysis "by a group that does not have an interest in the outcome."
Mr. Conyers said that Mr. Cheney had yet to respond.
"In future conflicts, we could unnecessarily endanger soldiers' lives if we deploy the Patriot based on overly optimistic assessments of its capabilities," Mr. Conyers said.