Coalition forces in the Kuwait theater of operations responded not only to actual Scud launches but also to many false reports of Scud attacks generated by early warning surveillance assets, intelligence reports, or because Patriots fired at false targets.

A. False Alarms

After a thorough review of ballistic missile incident accounts from Operation Desert Storm, we determined that at least 60 false alarms were logged in the KTO[131] (in addition to the Patriot false target detections addressed separately below). None of these 60 alarms documented an actual missile attack, but they may have created the impression that such attacks occurred more frequently than was the case. Even though many of these alerts were cancelled within minutes, many servicemembers and civilians took appropriate measures, donned chemical protective gear, and sought shelter. We believe (because alerts were canceled promptly) that misinterpretation of initial infrared (heat-source) detections by satellites led to most of these false alarms. At least two other false alarms came from detection of signals from a radar associated with Scud operations (it tracks weather balloons to determine winds aloft).

The United States operations, intelligence, and space communities collectively made history when they developed a system to provide warning of Iraq’s ballistic missile launches to the entire KTO (and Israel) within minutes.[132] This system relied primarily on space-based infrared surveillance. However, across any combat theater, there are many non-missile infrared sources including exploding bombs, high intensity flares, demolitions of weapons storage sites, and other sudden heat-producing events capable of registering on infrared-sensitive devices. Because warning time was at a premium, some early alerts proved false, but the goal was always to notify quickly to protect lives.[133]

On January 17th, the day the air campaign began, a Scud warning shortly after 4:00 AM put many bases and units in the Dhahran area into MOPP Level 3 (full protective gear except gloves – see glossary in Tab A).[134] Reports even noted confirmed missile impacts in the area[135] and Scud fragments collected.[136] The warning was eventually cancelled.[137]

A mobile Army surgical hospital (MASH) chronology includes the following for January 17th:

The 807th MASH has entered the war, and suddenly loudspeakers begin to blare, "SCUD alert … MOPP level four" … we all scurry into our MOPP gear … The lights are out, now, and we have been previously informed that the Saudis think a SCUD can only penetrate the top two floors of our building. In total darkness, punctuated only by the red-lensed flashlight beams, all 250 members of the 807th troop down three flights of stairs. As we occupy the empty apartments, each person sits on the floor, alone inside his mask except for his or her thoughts and fears. For 2 long hours we breathe claustrophobic air in hot chemical suits, until, with dawn, we hear, "ALL CLEAR, MOPP level zero." … We later find out that radar confused our own returning B-52’s with Scuds. Fortunately, we learn that after the war has ended.[138]

Figure 7 summarizes the false alarms during Operation Desert Storm. These false alarms declined in frequency after the first eight days of the war. The decline possibly reflected refined human judgment or adjustments in procedures. In addition to the detections graphed, United States Space Command generated five false alarms from December 25-30, 1990, three the result of live ballistic missile test firings by Iraq.[139]

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Figure 7.  False alarms during Operation Desert Storm

B. Patriot False Target Detections

According to information published after the Gulf War, a problem with the Patriot radar system caused Patriot missiles to fire at phantom targets. In September 1992, an Army official admitted that electronic signals, or noise, emitted by a variety of United States systems caused computer problems and accidentally launched Patriot missiles in the first week of the war. The Patriot's radar system processed these signals as the result of software flaws and a design that left the back of the radar unit open to stray signals. These signals came from the airborne warning and control system aircraft, radar jamming pods on fighters, test equipment, airport radars, and communications systems. Software changes and makeshift shrouds for the backs of Patriot radars eventually resolved the problem.[140] During the early stages of the air war that began on January 17, computers automatically directed the Patriot missile batteries’ threat responses. Soldiers in Patriot units did not have a role in the fire, no-fire decisions. Patriot units later revised the procedures, and changed to a manual mode of engagement that allowed operators to decide when to fire.[141]

The first actual ballistic missile attack against the KTO occurred against the Dhahran area at 9:43 PM on January 20, 1991. However, false targets involving Patriot reactions began on January 18, 1991, without warnings from national surveillance assets. Veterans aware of these engagements believed, at least at the time, that incoming missiles threatened them. Most reports did not identify the January 18th incidents as reactions to Patriot false targets until after the war when the discrepancy became public knowledge. For example, during the war, one Army document noted for the 18th that Patriots intercepted a single Scud in the Dhahran area.[142] Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery got credit for a first successful Scud intercept. An element of the XVIII Airborne Corps reported seeing a Scud missile heading south. Three powerful explosions occurred over Dhahran Air Base. This report claimed that three missiles had been fired at Dhahran. The same document indicated that Patriots engaged one incoming missile but that another hit Khobar, an area where United States forces were billeted. The entire Dhahran area was reported at MOPP Level four with lower MOPP levels ordered further west.[143] A Fox chemical reconnaissance vehicle searched for evidence of chemical warfare agent but found none.[144] One chronology stated that the explosions happened when a friendly aircraft released bombs into an ordnance jettison area.[145] We found only one contemporaneous record that indicated (correctly) that the reports of ballistic missiles launched at Dhahran on the 18th were erroneous.[146]

Despite the flurry of Patriot false targets early in the war (some interspersed with real attacks), we found no evidence that Patriots engaged false targets after January 23, 1991 (presumably because of the equipment and software fixes). Figure 8 shows how the 20 false target detections break down by day based on research of unclassified and declassified operational reporting.[147] Patriots did not launch missiles at every false target, but one report indicated that Patriot batteries fired a total of 22 missiles at false targets. In another report, an official admitted that the number was 24.[148]

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Figure 8.  False Patriot detections by date

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