Missile misfires in Somalia bring Pentagon probe Entire arsenal of TOW-2As replaced after many errors

August 27, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- American officials have launched an investigation of the TOW-2A missile, which has been considered one of the military's most accurate weapons but has been involved in a series of fatal misfires here that angered U.S. commanders on the ground and alienated many Somali civilians.

So great has been the Pentagon's concern over the missile's performance that U.S. Army experts from Alabama replaced the entire arsenal of TOW-2As in Mogadishu in late June, and the missile's track record has improved dramatically in the past month.

But, in the weeks before a visiting team of sleuths from America examined every component in its launch systems here, errant TOW-2A missiles fired from U.S. Cobra gunships slammed into a French relief agency's compound, killing a Somali aid worker and injuring seven others. They also demolished an empty warehouse, where several more civilians were killed and injured. Some simply fell out of their tubes, hurtling to the ground with 6.8 pounds of high explosives.

At the end of five bloody days of U.S.-led aerial and ground combat in Mogadishu in June -- part of a United Nations assault to punish and cripple renegade warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid -- the TOW-2A tally was so grim that it set off alarms in command centers of almost 50 armies worldwide, the loudest at the U.S. Army's Missile Command in Huntsville, Ala.

The missiles' poor performance in Mogadishu two months ago was the stuff of military planners' nightmares: eight misses in 37 attempts for a weapon that is not supposed to miss more than 5 percent of the time in combat.

"What happened in June was enough to cause great concern and instant alarm," said Dave Harris, Missile Command spokesman and a civilian expert on the TOW system.

The U.S. Army has reached no firm conclusions from its continuing investigation of the failures of the weapon, now best known by its acronym, which stands for "Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided" missile.

"We didn't find a single, smoking gun" that may have caused the missile misfires, Mr. Harris said in a telephone interview. But he said a team of experts dispatched here to try to resolve the TOW woes has focused on the severe weather conditions under which a batch of the missiles had been stored.

One gunner on a U.S. Cobra attack helicopter enforcing a U.N. "coercive disarmament" campaign here described the horrors of what happened because of the problems with the missile.

The gunner did not know that the BM-21 rocket launcher he had targeted in a crowded residential neighborhood was actually rusted junk. No one had told him that U.S. Marines had examined it and left it for scrap months before.

No one had told the gunner -- as he aligned the cross-hairs of his high-tech optical sight on an ancient weapon below -- that the $12,000, 3 1/2 -year-old missile he was about to fire into a neighborhood filled with women and children had been exposed to Saudi Arabia's extreme heat for eight months.

The missile went wide, exploding into a tea stall, killing an old Somali woman and a child, spreading panic and lasting fear throughout this capital. The gunner fired again; his second missile destroyed the useless rocket launcher he had targeted.

"It was one thing when we were firing TOWs at a row of Iraqi tanks in the desert," said an American Cobra pilot in Mogadishu. The veteran of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991 said he was hurt and frustrated when his gunner's missiles went astray and killed innocent Somalis.

"Back in the Gulf war, if you missed one tank, you hit another," he said. "Here, if you miss even by a few feet, you kill people."

The urgent investigation of the TOW-2A by the Pentagon and Missile Command has been under way for two months and has been nothing short of a high-tech weapons detective story, with the lives of civilians and soldiers worldwide and the fate of America's best-selling, most widely used high-tech weapons system at stake.

Mr. Harris noted that a visiting six-member American group of missile experts made changes in Mogadishu that improved the TOW's performance to far more acceptable levels. Visiting experts from Alabama, Texas and Tucson, Ariz., (where Hughes has a missile plant) spent 10 days, using the latest test and diagnostic equipment.

They replaced the TOW arsenal in Mogadishu with 380 newer missiles from Alabama, which have performed far more accurately in two subsequent U.N. combat operations on June 30 and July 12.

Of 51 combat TOW-2A missile launches from Cobras in Somalia since the missile team left June 28, just three have missed targets -- one inflicting civilian injuries -- in a performance ratio that Harris called "at least as good as we would anticipate anywhere in the world."

"Things appear to be fixed in Somalia," Mr. Harris said. He added that he well understands that such conclusions are of little comfort to Somali civilians and to combat officers in Mogadishu.

"I'm not impressed if we fire 1,000 missiles and only one fails. If it kills a woman or a child, we lose the battle that day," said one senior officer in the U.N. force. "Every time we fire a missile into this city, it escalates the tension on the streets, and that makes our job of bringing the peace a little tougher."

The TOW problems raised alarms far beyond Somalia, as statistics at Missile Command indicate that the missiles are, by far, the most widely used high-tech American weapon in the world. Hughes has manufactured more than 600,000 of them in five variants. They have been sold and exported to 50 nations since the first generation TOW was fielded in 1970.

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