Scud Missile Attacks and Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid

the letter a

n unexpected hazard in the Kuwait theater of operations was exposure to a highly corrosive oxidizer called inhibited red fuming nitric acid that was used in a rocket propellant for Iraq's Scud missiles.

Scud missile
Scud missile

Iraq began launching Scud missiles at Israel and Coalition forces soon after the Coalition's Gulf War air campaign began on January 17, 1991. Many Gulf War veterans observed or were aware of incoming or overflying Scud missiles, Patriot missiles fired in defense, and Scud missile or debris impacts. American and other Coalition forces in the Kuwait theater of operations (KTO) knew Iraq had the capability to use chemical weapons, so Scud missile attacks represented a significant cause for concern for anyone within their range. The fear of a chemical attack was reinforced by the chemical warfare agent alarms that coincided with some Scud attacks. Though the alarms subsequently proved to be false, their occurrence fed the general anxiety.

When Scuds broke up on re-entry or were destroyed by Patriot missile intercepts, they often released unexpended inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA) into the air. Many times this phenomenon was observed as a yellowish-brown or orange mist. Veterans related incidents of nausea, dizziness, tingling or burning skin and other symptoms consistent with IRFNA exposure. Lacking an explanation for these observations at the time of their occurrence, some veterans assumed that the cloud's presence or mist and the accompanying symptoms meant they had been subjected to a chemical weapons attack.

During investigations of many of these reported detections, we reviewed records, interviewed witnesses, and coordinated results with subject matter experts. In no case could we determine that Iraq's Scud missiles contained chemical warfare agents. Our analyses can be found in the following reports.


The DSP satellite detedted Scud launches.
The DSP satellite detected Scud missile launches.

Scud Missiles

Our information paper on Iraq's Scud ballistic missiles describes the missile's characteristics and targets, and assesses each Scud attack on the KTO. Iraq's Scud attacks involved 88 missiles, of which 46 reached Coalition countries in the KTO. Our paper discusses the possible IRFNA incidents caused by missile break-up during reentry and the effect of these break-ups on chemical agent detectors. The paper also briefly reviews topics related to counter-Scud operations, including Patriot missile defenses. Iraq filled both chemical and biological warheads for their Scud missiles before the Gulf War, but probably feared retaliation if they used them. In-depth research for this paper uncovered no evidence that Iraq fired Scuds with chemical or biological warheads during the Gulf War. All Scud debris indicated use of conventional warheads.


Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid

Area of exposure under a Scud break-up.
Area of exposure under a Scud break-up

Our information paper, Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid, is designed to provide a basic understanding of IRFNA and identify where and how Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to this oxidizer. IRFNA contains mostly nitric acid, nitrogen oxides, a small percentage of water, and an inhibitor (an additive which prevents the acid from eating through its metal storage tank). This inhibitor is a halogen substance, such as hydrogen fluoride or iodine. When IRFNA combines with rocket fuel, the resulting combustion creates the thrust needed to launch a rocket or a missile. During the Gulf War, Iraq's military used IRFNA as the oxidizer in several weapon systems, including the Scud, Guideline, Silkworm/Seersucker, and Kyle missiles. These weapon systems were used throughout the Kuwait theater of operations. When a Scud missile broke up, impacted, or was intercepted by Coalition weapons, the missile fuel and IRFNA combination could have exposed some troops to nitric acid and nitric dioxide.


Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia

Three significant events occurred in and around the greater Al Jubayl area during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. One of these events is known as the "Scud impact" event.

Scud fuel tank recovered from Al Jubayal harbor.
Scud fuel tank recovered from Al Jubayl harbor

On February 16, 1991, Iraq launched its 66th Scud missile of the war. The missile impacted in the waters of Al Jubayl harbor at approximately 2:00 AM. The Scud did not detonate and caused no equipment damage or injury to Coalition personnel. Eyewitnesses reported seeing an explosion that looked as if a Patriot missile had intercepted the Scud. Although there was a Patriot missile battery near the harbor, it was not operational at the time. The Scud missile's warhead was recovered and examined by explosive ordnance disposal personnel, who found no evidence of chemical warfare agents, but did confirm that the missile's warhead contained high explosives.

Our investigation into the Al Jubayl Scud impact event is detailed in our Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, case narrative. The narrative also includes a short history of Al Jubayl, a discussion of the environment military personnel lived and worked in, the results of our investigations into two other significant events—the "loud noise event" and "the purple T-shirt event"—and a synopsis of medical studies involving Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, who reported experiencing post-war medical problems.


Storage tank found at the Kuwaiti Girls School. Rust-colored fumes eminate from a buleet hole inside the red circle.
Rust-colored fumes emanate from a bullet hole (red circle) in a storage tank found at the Kuwaiti Girls' School.

Kuwaiti Girls' School

Following the expulsion of Iraq's forces from Kuwait, the government of Kuwait began reconstructing the infrastructure damaged during Iraq's occupation. The schools in Kuwait, which had been closed for nearly a year, were a main focus of civil infrastructure repair. Their reopening was considered an important indicator of a return to normality within the country.

In early August 1991, a British explosive ordnance disposal firm, Passive Barriers, subcontracted by Brown & Root, an American firm carrying out reconstruction tasks on schools in Kuwait, discovered a suspicious metal storage tank alongside the perimeter wall of the Kuwaiti Girls' School. Rust-colored vapors were puffing from two bullet holes in the tank.

Initial indications that the tank contained mustard agent led to investigations by several US and British agencies. For some of the individuals involved there were unanswered questions about the nature of the tank's contents. Consequently, in 1997, we looked into the incident and determined the tank did not contain a chemical warfare agent, but did contain nitric acid, probably red fuming nitric acid. IRFNA was used in the anti-ship missiles that Iraq stored and repaired in the school's facilities. The story of our investigation is chronicled in the Kuwaiti Girls' School case narrative.


Possible Chemical Agent on a Scud Missile Sample

US military personnel examine debris from an Iraqi Scud missile.

On September 18, 1995, during a meeting in Charlotte, N. C., a veteran provided a small piece of metal to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. The veteran said the soldier who found it related it was a piece from a Scud missile that a Patriot missile had intercepted near King Fahd Military Airport in January 1991. The veteran said he experienced watering eyes, tingling skin, and blisters when handling the piece of metal. Analysis of the sample by the US Army Edgewood Research and Development Engineering Center revealed no evidence of chemical warfare agents. In July 2000, we published the final report on our investigation into the possibility that this Scud missile piece was contaminated with chemical warfare agent.

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