Paper examines Iraq’s use of Scuds during Gulf War

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2000 (GulfLINK) – The Department of Defense’s Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses has released a new information paper, Iraq’s Scud Ballistic Missiles. The paper is the latest in a series of detailed reports investigating incidents and accounts pertaining to the 1991 Gulf War and their possible relationship to the undiagnosed illnesses experienced by some Gulf war veterans.

"The report contains background data on the Scud, how it was used during the war and how Coalition forces responded," said Bernard Rostker, the special assistant. "It’s an aid to understanding incidents involving Iraq’s Scuds and dispels some of the misconceptions that arose during and after the war."

The Scud missile achieved notoriety in the early days of the Gulf War as worldwide television audiences watched Iraq’s missiles menace Israel and Coalition forces in the Kuwait theater of operations. Far from being the most reliable or accurate weapon system, Scud missiles frequently broke up upon re-entry to lower, denser atmospheric levels. Several exploded early in flight. The gyroscopic guidance system was unsophisticated and only functioned during the first minute and a half of powered flight. This meant that any external forces acting upon the missile – temperature, turbulence, air density, etc. – could degrade its accuracy.

Despite its flaws, Scuds caused millions of dollars worth of damage to Israeli cities and killed several civilians. A single Scud was also responsible for the bloodiest day suffered by U.S. forces when a warhead from a disintegrating missile fell upon a warehouse in the Dharan suburb of Al Khobar. The warehouse served as temporary barracks. At the time, most of the occupants were assigned to the 475th Quartermaster Group. Twenty-eight soldiers died and more than 100 were injured.

The sheer unpredictability of the Scud missile and its seeming omnipresence during a month-long siege rendered it an effective psychological weapon. Combined with Iraq’s threat to use chemical and biological weapons, Coalition forces and Israeli citizens lived with the constant dread of indiscriminate attack. Alerts sent people scurrying for their protective gear and shelters to endure hours of uncertainty until the all clear was sounded.

Iraq’s Scud missile design is descended from the German V-2 rocket used to terrorize England during World War II. The design migrated from Peenemünde in the German foothills to Baghdad via the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Iraq eventually modified the Soviet Scud-B design to accommodate more propellant and extend its range. These modifications necessitated a smaller warhead and contributed to the missile’s instability problems by shifting the center of gravity. Speed was also increased which caused greater problems with atmospheric friction and heating. This also caused instability and the tendency for the missile to break apart during re-entry. The extended range did serve well in the Iran/Iraq War when redesigned Scuds killed thousands. Intelligence analysts determined that these modified Scuds, dubbed the "Al Hussein,"by Iraq were the bulk of the type used by Iraq during the Gulf War.

Pre-war intelligence judged that Iraq had developed the capability to deliver chemical and biological warfare warheads using the Scud. It was reported that a successful test of a chemical warfare agent-armed Scud occurred in 1990. The thinking among Coalition members was that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would not hesitate to use chemical or biological weapons in the face of overwhelming battlefield defeat or if his personal position became hopeless. Hussein had employed such weapons in the past against Iran and the Kurds in northern Iraq.

In an early war broadcast, Hussein announced his intent to use chemical weapons against Coalition forces. A January 18, 1991, Scud attack against Israel was originally thought to involve chemical warheads. The Israelis quickly retracted this report and post-war investigations confirmed that none of the Scuds fired upon Israel had chemical or biological warheads.

In reality, despite the report of the successful 1990 test, Iraq encountered many difficulties in developing chemical and biological warheads. In January 1991, the CIA reported that while Iraq did have the warheads, it lacked the fusing and detonation technology required to make their use practical. After the war, U.N. inspectors reported that Iraq had 50 chemical and 25 biological Scud warheads. However, CIA investigators found no evidence that Iraq’s leaders ordered chemical or biological use during the war. There was also no conclusive evidence that Iraq’s forces employed those weapons.

"Our investigation found no evidence that Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles armed with chemical or biological warfare warheads at either Israel or the KTO," said Rostker.

However, the fear of a chemical or biological attack persisted throughout the war and even in the memories of some veterans today. Other factors reinforced this fear. Coincident with some Scud attacks, there were chemical warfare agent alarms. These subsequently proved to be false alarms, but their mere occurrence fed the general dread. Another significant factor involved the Scud’s propellant. The missiles were fueled with kerosene and used inhibited red fuming nitric acid – or IRFNA – as an oxidizer. The propellent is a highly toxic substance and can cause deep, painful burns on the skin or in the lungs. When inhaled it can produce immediate or delayed symptoms including dry throat, cough, headache, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, chest pain, labored breathing, inflammation of the lungs, choking, fluid in the lungs and, in extreme exposures, suffocation.

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

"Given what they thought, saw and felt, you can definitely understand the veterans’ fears and confusion," said Rostker, "but fortunately they were mistaken. If those had been chemical weapons attacks, the consequences would have been far more horrible."

A common misconception is that Iraq launched hundreds of Scud missiles at Israel and the KTO during the January/February siege. Some veterans thought that Iraq launched more Scuds at Coalition forces than actually occurred. Scuds broke up on reentry or after Patriot missile intercepts and debris hit the ground in separate areas. This, together with numerous false alarms, and Patriot missile fire on false targets, contributed to this impression.

The special assistant’s office examined and cross-referenced all available sources to eliminate as much redundancy in the count as possible. Its investigation determined that the most probable numbers are 46 Scuds fired into the KTO and 42 fired at Israel for a total of 88 missiles. Several more were early in-flight failures in Iraq.

The U.S. operations, intelligence and space communities collectively developed an early warning system that could alert forces in the KTO – and the Israelis – within minutes of a suspected Scud launch. The system employed satellites using infrared imagery to detect the heat signature or "bloom" of a missile launch. Upon detection, a warning was immediately relayed to the field. Because the Gulf War was a "hot" conflict with many infrared sources, it was inevitable that some blooms would be misidentified as Scuds. This was documented 60 times. Most of these false alerts were cancelled within minutes, but not before people had reacted. Additionally, the early warning system could not quickly determine where the Scuds were targeted. In the many launches, everyone was alerted even when the missiles proved to be aimed at another site. The incidence of false alarms declined in frequency after the first eight days, possibly due to better human judgement.

Early in the war, Patriot operators discovered weaknesses in the Patriot Fire Unit radar software and structural design. Electronic signals and electromagnetic "noise" emitted by a variety of U.S. systems found their way into the Patriot radar through the open, unshielded back of the radar unit. This noise was interpreted by the system as target data and the system initiated engagements based upon the false data. During the early period of Patriot deployment, onboard computers automatically directed the missile batteries’ responses. Patriot operators had no role in fire/no fire decisions. Consequently, 24 missiles were launched at non-existent targets in the first week of the war. These problems were overcome through software modification, shrouding the radar unit to protect it from stray emissions and operating in a manual engagement mode.

In addition to the false targets, Patriots were often launched on airborne Scud debris either from missiles just breaking up or previously intercepted. Out of the total 158 Patriot missiles fired during the Gulf War, officials assess that 86 were fired at real Scuds, 50 at debris and 22 at false targets.

The information paper has been released as an interim report. Anyone with information that would increase our understanding of Iraq’s Scud missile and more accurately report its use during the Gulf War is encouraged to contact the special assistant’s office at (800) 497-6261.