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U.S. Scud-Busters Find Fame in Saudi Desert

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 1991; Page A01

Post time line
EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, Jan. 26—It begins with the alarm, a banshee scream cutting across the darkened compound like a ripsaw. The Patriot launch team, napping fitfully, comes awake in an instant. Within seconds, scores of soldiers burrow deep into sandbag bunkers, grab their radios and prepare their ambush.

"It's coming in this direction," said Army Sgt. William Salmon, 23, of Stillwater, Okla., the radio operator in Bravo Battery's command post. "We have inbounds. Scud launch, Scud launch."

"We've got them on the scope," said Capt. Joe DeAntona, 28, of Scranton, Pa. "Here it comes."

At 3:37 a.m. today, Bravo and Alfa batteries of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, fired Patriot anti-missile missiles at an approaching Scud rocket.

"We have launched," DeAntona said, breaking an expectant silence. Long seconds passed, then came the sound of a distant whump.

Salmon ducked his head, listening hard, then put his radio receiver down: "We got it."

In the past eight days 2nd Battalion has killed 10 Iraqi Scud missiles over a vast air base in eastern Saudi Arabia. The battalion tracks the Scuds, locks onto them with powerful radars and lets them come into striking range of the thin, arrow-like Patriots.

The Patriot battalions are the first heroes of Operation Desert Storm, protecting cities and vital installations from Iraq's Scud salvos. Patriots have had mixed luck in Israel and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where Scuds have caused some significant damage and a few deaths. The 2nd Battalion, however, has never missed, and its soldiers pray they never will. For now, they are the most popular people at the air base.

"After we got our first one, I called the Air Force and asked them to lend us a forklift to reload our canisters," said DeAntona, a 1984 West Point graduate. "The second time, they called me and asked me if I needed the forklift. And they sent the operator."

The fame of the air base's Patriot batteries has spread throughout eastern Saudi Arabia. On the beachfront at a nearby town citizens were picking up little pieces of Scud debris to cherish as souvenirs. In the lobby of the Dhahran International Hotel a piece of a Patriot bearing the inscription "We Love You" sits on a pedestal. Dozens of reporters who live there have penned love notes on its lobster-colored skin.

Friday night, Saudi soldiers in a pickup truck delivered a 12-foot-long piece of Scud to battalion headquarters as a token of appreciation. The Air Force security patrol has sent cookies and brownies after particularly nasty nights.

Throughout all this, however, the men and women who operate the batteries remain isolated on squalid corners of the air base, amid desert sand, stones and windblown bits of trash. To hear DeAntona tell it, his people prefer it that way.

"The soldiers don't want to leave -- this is their home," he said. "We had an opportunity to move off site. I didn't favor it, but I put it to the kids. Not a single soldier wanted to move."

And even less now. As night fell Friday, the Patriot soldiers rushed to finish a dinner of hamburgers, french fries and strawberry cake, not wanting to waste time during the dark hours when the Scuds are most likely to fly. The battalion canteen is only 100 yards from the Bravo Battery command post, but DeAntona became visibly impatient over a second cup of coffee.

"I went to town once in early December," he said. "I can't remember the last time I left the site. But I don't mind. A lot of my people take cots down to the command post to sleep there. Saves time."

At dark, the entire battalion was in Mission Oriented Protective Posture 2, wearing a full chemical-protective suit with gas masks strapped to the waist.

The alarm shrieked the first "Scud alert" shortly after 7 p.m. In seconds, DeAntona and 13 essential crew members ran to the Bravo Battery command bunker, two concrete culverts sunk in sand bags a few steps from their sleeping quarters.

In the bunker, DeAntona monitors the progress of each attack by a radio telephone linked to his three-member fire-control team, shut up in a van with the Patriot's computers. The Patriot system selects its targets, tracks them and fires automatically, but the fire-control team monitors every part of the intercept.

Minutes after the command team was in place, Salmon passed the words "Scud launch." He paused for a moment, listened: "Four launched toward Israel."

"He's going to hit Israel again," Salmon said.

"Son of a bitch," said a voice from the gloom. "I hope those guys in Tel Aviv are ready."

The Patriot battery gets its alerts and target information from a variety of sources, but once the Scud attack begins, the amount of information digested by the system is so complex that a single battery is unable to decipher it until its analysts have pored for hours over computer printouts. Often, DeAntona said, "the people on CNN {Cable News Network} know what has happened before we do."

Soon, a transistor radio tuned to the Armed Forces Radio and Television System was broadcasting reports from Israel: "Several missiles have landed," the radio said, and a bit later, "From the trajectory it looked like a Patriot or a Scud."

"He's a genius," said a voice inside the Bravo command post.

"Pack it up and go to Israel?" said another voice. "Let's do it. They want to play hard ball? Let's do it."

After half an hour, DeAntona turned to Salmon: "I think we're in for a long night. Remember the last time. He fired at Israel, Riyadh, and then us."

Twenty minutes later the all clear sounded. The command bunker emptied, leaving the radio behind to play Eric Clapton: "I Shot the Sheriff."

The peace and quiet lasted for about a half-hour before the alarm sounded again. This time there was no launch. Chief Warrant Officer Gerald Roberts, 49, of Fresno, Calif., Bravo Battery's leading mechanic, complained that he hadn't had time to finish a letter: "Every time I tell them nothing is happening, we get hit."

A third alert came just before 10:30 p.m. But after a few moments, Salmon said, "It's Riyadh, this time -- so we're next."

"So, chief," DeAntona said as they listened to music on the radio. "When your kids ask you what you did on Friday night, you can tell them you sat in a filthy hole and listened to Huey Lewis."

"I'll tell them I spent all morning working on a radar and all night sleeping in a culvert -- except for the sleep part," said Roberts.

"Gee, chief," DeAntona replied. "If this hadn't happened, we wouldn't have gotten our quality time together."

The fourth attack came about 3:30 a.m. today. Temperatures had dropped sharply, and the men and women of Bravo Battery had donned extra clothing. First Lt. Maureen Fickaisce, 22, a graduate of Lehigh University, was in the van leading the attack and talking to DeAntona by phone.

After Salmon announced "Scud launch," and "incoming," the command post fell silent. The Scud was coming toward the air base, and there was nothing to do but wait: "You got to let that baby come in," DeAntona had explained earlier. If "you shoot farther out, you're less accurate."

Outdoors, NBC cameraman Teruhiko Yashiro and soundman Okitaka Hikosaka waited about 100 yards from the Bravo Battery launchers. At 3:37 a.m. they recorded a throaty explosion, a blast of light, and the arrow-shaped Patriot lancing out in a comet-like streak.

The missile arched once and headed out at an angle of about 45 degrees. Soon it was a point of light, rapidly making rendezvous with a second Patriot launched from Alfa Battery, tucked into another corner of the air base.

The Alfa Patriot, approaching from another angle, corkscrewed and disappeared through the clouds. The two missiles were on a collision course, intercepting each other and the incoming Scud. An instant later there was a flash of light, then a second flash. A burning piece of debris shaped like a white-hot teardrop plunged to the ground spraying sparks.

"What do you think, chief?" DeAntona asked.

"I think we got a hit," Roberts replied.

Until they sorted out the computer data, it would be impossible to tell exactly what had happened in the sky, but after a few minutes DeAntona conceded it looked like Alfa Battery would get primary credit -- and a 6-to-4 battalion lead in Scud kills. "Alfa hit it and our missile went up and exploded right next to it," DeAntona said. "Of course, that story will change."

There were three more Scud alerts before 8:30 a.m. today, but no more rockets were reported launched. Throughout the battalion, soldiers catnapped between sirens and hoped for a longer sleep during the day. The two alerts that came after sunrise, however, caused a bit of resentment.

Pfc. Heather Brown, 22, of Katy, Tex., the Headquarters Battery clerk, ran 150 yards to her bunker with pancakes and hashbrowns on her plate: "One thing I'm not going to miss is breakfast."

A Patriot missile fired at an incoming Scud is guided to its target by a sophisticated information network. 1. The Patriot and a ground radar system track the Scud. The Patriot sends its data to the ground radar for computer correlation, and receives course corrections in return. 2. A ground-based computer determines distance and speed of the enemy missile, then programs the Patriot to blow up as closely as possible to the Scud. Ideally, detonation occurs within a few feet. 3. When the Patriot explodes, it sends more than 300 metal fragments -- each about 1 inch long -- into the air. The combination of the explosion and the flying metal chunks, is designed to incapacitate the Scud. 4. While a Patriot may successfully explode in front of a Scud, large chunks of the eight-ton enemy missile can remain intact, falling on population centers and causing extensive damage.


© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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