Scud missiles riveted the attention of cable news outlets during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 when Iraq launched 88 of these notoriously inaccurate and unstable weapons at Saudi Arabia and Israel. At 8:30pm on February 25, a Scud struck a United States Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Patriot missiles launched to intercept an Iraqi Scud missile over Tel Aviv, February 12, 1991 (ALPERT NATHAN, GPO)
Written by Todd DePastino
Developed first by the Soviet Union in the 1950s as a kind of knock-off of the Nazi V-2 rocket, Scud missiles were sent around the world to Soviet allies during the Cold War, only to be further copied, modified and otherwise proliferated by regional powers like Iran and North Korea. For countries that couldn’t afford an Air Force, Scuds were a cheap alternative.
All Scuds are tactical ballistic missiles. That means they have short ranges (80-400 miles) and travel in arcs, powered for only part of their flights. Scuds stand about 37 feet tall, measure about three feet in diameter, and weigh between 10,000 – 14,000 pounds. They have simple engines that burn kerosene and nitric acid. Most are mobile and can be hauled by trucks.
Far from “smart,” they’re scattershot weapons. Designed to deliver biological, chemical and nuclear warheads, as well as conventional explosives, Scuds don’t need to be precise to bring their deadly effect to bear.
Military personnel examine the tail section of a Scud missile shot down in the desert by an MIM-104 Patriot tactical air defense missile during Operation Desert Storm (DoD)
The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s saw widespread use of Scuds, as the two countries terrorized each other’s capitals, Baghdad and Tehran, during the so-called “War of the Cities.”
That war inspired Iraq to produce modified Scuds for greater range. These “Al Hussein” missiles had heavy warheads and motors and burned their fuel early in flight. This increased their instability, and Iraqi Scuds often broke up on descent, adding to the unpredictability of their flight paths.
To combat Scud attacks, the US Army brought Patriot Anti-Ballistic Surface-to-Air Missiles to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm. Patriots had been developed in the 1970s specifically to thwart aircraft but were modified in the 1980s to take on Scuds. Patriots had never been tested in combat until 1991.
Soviet-era SS-1 Scud missile on display at the National Museum of Military History, Bulgaria. (DAVID HOLT, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>)
During the war, Coalition forces claimed huge success in knocking Scuds off target and out of the sky. “Patriot is 41 for 42: 42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted,” said President George H.W. Bush on February 15, 1991. That would have made the Patriot one of the most successful weapons in history. Although the success rate is still much debated, no post-war study has shown anything close to the accuracy claimed in the heat of battle.
Investigations conducted by the US House of Representatives and the US General Accounting Office found that while Patriots came close to most Scuds, they probably didn’t achieve anything better than a nine percent kill rate. In addition, Patriots added to the debris field of the falling Scuds, occasionally compounding damage on the ground.
One thing is certain: Patriots failed to intercept the Scud that hit the 14th Quartermaster Detachment (Water Purification) a U.S. Army Reserve unit based in Greensburg, PA, on February 25, 1991. A software error caused the Patriot Missile system’s internal clock to drift by a third of a second, enough time to miss the Scud’s approach by a third of a mile. The needed software update arrived to the Army the next day.
War, no matter how successful, is always messy. And there are always failures that demand accounting.