Military says it knows what went wrong with missile

Pentagon won't explain malfunction that led to hit on Iraqi neighborhood

February 05, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has determined why its new Air Force missile veered off course last week and slammed into a residential neighborhood in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

But it refuses to reveal any specifics of the Jan. 25 incident that, Iraqi officials claimed, killed 11 civilians and wounded 59.

"Central Command is aware of what happened, but for operational security reasons they're not revealing any information," said Maj. Tyrone M. Woodyard, an Air Force spokesman, referring to the military command responsible for the Persian Gulf region.

The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., investigated the incident involving the AGM-130, a 2,000-pound warhead launched from an F-15E Strike Eagle. The missile went off course by several kilometers and landed in the al-Jumhuriya neighborhood, the Pentagon said.

Some senior military officials had suggested human error and others missile malfunction as possible explanations, but Maj. Joseph LaMarca, a Central Command spokesman, said even the answer to that question won't be revealed. The AGM-130 is still part of the Air Force's arsenal in the gulf, said LaMarca.

The incident occurred when six U.S. attack aircraft were threatened by anti-aircraft fire and Iraqi MiG fighters in the southern "no-fly" zone. The aircraft, in turn, targeted Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites, radar and communications facilities.

Pentagon officials have said they could not independently confirm the number of civilian casualties. They termed the AGM-130, first used in combat last month, "a missile that has fired well."

Nearly 13 feet long and costing $300,000 each, the AGM-130 is an update of the GBU-15. Outfitted with front and back wings, a global positioning system and a rocket motor, the missile affords "pinpoint accuracy" and allows the aircrew to fire at targets farther away, according to the Air Force.

The missile is guided to its target by a plane's rear-seat weapons systems officer, who can lock onto the target or manually steer the missile, aided by television pictures beamed back from the warhead.

The AGM-130 was delivered to the military in the early 1990s by Rockwell International, which was bought out by the Boeing Co. in 1996. The missile is built by Boeing's military aircraft and weapons systems group in Duluth, Ga.

Robert Algarotti, a Boeing spokesman, said company officials were not involved in the investigation and have not been told why the missile went off course.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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