Key point: Before you destroy all of an enemy's missiles, first you have to find them.
While assembling the coalition that would eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990–1991, one thing American military planners weren’t worried about was Iraq’s Scud-B tactical ballistic missiles. True, Iraq had flung hundreds of the Soviet-designed missiles at Iranian cities during the Iran-Iraq war. But the weapons were derived from Nazi V-2 rockets dating back to World War II, and had difficulty hitting any target smaller than a city. The home-built Al-Hussein Scuds developed by Iraqi engineers cut down the size of the warhead and increased the fuel to afford them greater range, at the expense of killing power and accuracy. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition, thought of them as little more than a terror weapon that would inflict negligible military damage.
Nonetheless, when the coalition began its devastating air campaign over Iraq on January 17, 1991, it threw everything from B-52s to F-117 stealth fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles to blast twenty-eight fixed Scud sites as well as storage areas and factories.
It became clear the following night, however, that the raids had not silenced the ballistic missiles. The Iraqi military also had a fleet of transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) trucks dispersed throughout western and southern Iraq. Dictator Saddam Hussein settled on a strategy designed to undermine the alliance’s political underpinnings. Starting on January 18, Scud missiles began to rain down cities in Saudi Arabia—and Israeli cities, injuring dozens.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would normally have responded to such a provocation by flattening portions of Iraq with the Israeli Air Force. But if Saddam succeeded in drawing Israel into the war, this might drive away support from the coalition’s key Arab allies. Thus, the Bush administration pleaded with Rabin to keep his strike planes on the ground and let the coalition deal with Saddam.
But that wasn’t good enough for Tel Aviv—the Israeli government wanted the coalition to demonstrate it was doing everything in its power to eliminate the Scud threat, or else it would take matters into its own own hands. After all, how difficult could it be to destroy a score of large, soft-skinned trucks toting enormous missiles?
The Great Scud Hunt Begins
While two batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles were redeployed from Saudi Arabia to shield Israel, American and British warplanes were redirected to hammer Saddam’s Scud force. But this was no easy task: a Scud’s TEL unit could move to a firing position, launch its missile, and then scoot back into hiding before it could be located and destroyed.
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To hunt the Scud trucks down, the coalition dispatched A-10 Thunderbolts attack jets to scour the desert during the day, while F-15E Strike Eagle and RAF Tornado fighter bombers combed the sand dunes at night, the former using LANTIRN infrared sensor pods. Meanwhile, high-flying U-2 spy planes began mapping out the desert of Iraq, searching for likely Scud positions.
When a Scud launch was detected—often when a satellite spotted its launch flash—the information was relayed first to the Air Force command center in Riyadh, then to an orbiting E-8 JSTAR command plane, and finally to a strike plane orbiting the area. This process typically took at least thirty minutes.
Thirty minutes was in theory the amount of time it took for a Scud crew to start moving after launch—but Iraqi crews had streamlined the firing process to just six minutes. Likewise, they had reduced setup time for the missiles from two hours to a half hour. Unable to catch Scuds before or after firing, Coalition warplanes were forced to scan so-called “Scud Boxes” where planners thought the Scuds might be hiding.
Thus, roughly 50 percent of the aerial weapons released during the Scud Hunt were targeting “possible” areas that could hide a Scud launcher, including bridge overpasses and nearby buildings. Even the 15 percent of strikes targeted at actual TEL units were not reliable. Infrared scanners had great difficulty spotting the TELs at all, and could not distinguish them from regular trucks; they were even known to confuse ill-fated goat herds for missile launchers! Even on the lucky occasions aircraft spotted Scud launches at night, they only succeeded in targeting the launchers less than 20 percent of the time.
Commandos Go Missile Hunting
Clearly, spotting launchers from the air was difficult. General Schwarzkopf was not fond of “snake eaters” (Special Operations units) but it was decided to employ them to help eyeball Scuds from the ground.
On January 20, MH-47 helicopters inserted Brave-Two-One, the first thirty-man patrol of the British Special Air Service, along with their Land Rover vehicles, with a mission to hunt Scuds and sabotage their command and control infrastructure. Two more teams were deployed on foot. The elite commandos nestled into concealed observation points during the day and spied on Scud launches at night. On the evening of January 23, the commandos lasered four fixed Scuds sights, highlighting them for destruction by a swarm of Strike Eagles, which you can see in the following recording.
U.S. Army operators followed on February 7 when the first of four seventy-five-man Delta Force units inserted in north-western Iraq via MH-60 and MH-53 helicopters. These teams zipped about with Humvees and Fast Attack Vehicles (dune buggies!). Other teams would deploy by parachute.
Both SAS and Delta Force knocked out missile facilities and cut fiber optic cables relaying orders. They also dispatched aircraft to attack Scuds they saw launching at night, but ran into the same problem satellite intel suffered from: it often took fifty minutes for targeting data to get relayed to orbiting strike planes, and pilots often couldn’t locate a Scud launcher even while scanning a one-square-mile search area.
Furthermore, rooting around behind enemy lines for weeks at a time was a dangerous business. A night-flying MH-60 helicopter crashed into a sand dune, killing three. Dug-in teams were at constant risk of being discovered by local herders. This infamously occurred to SAS patrol Bravo-Two Zero; chased by superior Iraqi forces, one team member was killed, two died of cold exposure, and four were captured and tortured. Though benefiting from better equipment and intel, several Delta Force teams were also discovered. One patrol had to call in Strike Eagles to blast over a hundred Iraqi mechanized troops before making a hasty escape by helicopter.
Despite these efforts, a total of eighty-eight Scuds were launched at Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain throughout the war. Though firing rates diminished after the first week of the war, they picked up against in the last week, demonstrating that Iraq’s capacity to continue firing them had not diminished greatly.
The forty-two missiles that struck Israeli cities killed only two civilians, but caused the death of fifteen more due to stress, accidents and heart attacks, and damaged hundreds of homes. A Scud inflicted the worst damage inflicted to U.S. forces in one blow during the war when it was missed by a faulty Patriot air-defense missile and struck U.S. barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing twenty-eight National Guardsmen from Pennsylvania.
Coalition air and Special Ops units claimed the destruction of over one hundred Scud launchers by the end of the war, and many operational histories repeat the claims of efficient Scud-destruction. But when Pentagon did its own postwar assessment, it came to a very different conclusion: it could not confirm the destruction of even one of the mobile Scud launchers. At best, it concluded, a few launchers had been destroyed out of a total force of around thirty. Indeed, a UN.commission dispatched to Iraq counted sixty-two missiles and nineteen launch vehicles.
As it happens, just prior to hostilities Juergen Gietler, an archivist at the German foreign ministry, smuggled out detailed intelligence the United States possessed on Iraqi Scud installations in plastic bags, delivering them to Iraqi Gen. Osmat Judi Mohammed in exchange for hefty cash payments. This intel persuaded Baghdad to disperse the missiles to mobile units rather than launch them from the fixed sites.
The fixed sites were still built up to divert coalition attacks toward them. Additionally, the Iraqis made excellent use of rubber decoy Scuds produced in East Germany to draw the fire of coalition aircraft. Meanwhile, mobile Scud crews concealed themselves by transmitting a minimum of telemetry, making use of pre-built holding pens adjacent to roads, and transiting via sunken wadis and canyons to conceal their movements.
Ironically, the Great Scud Hunt succeeded in its strategic goal: the commitment of elite commandos and advanced strike planes persuaded Israel not to retaliate. But the hunt failed its military objective, and proved costly, both in the lives of Special Forces operators, and in the 2,500 sorties flown on Scud Hunting missions. However, some argue that the Scud Hunt at least curtailed the pace of the Iraqi bombardment by forcing missile crews to spend more time hiding, saving civilian lives.
Still, the failure to destroy the launchers highlights how easy it can be to overestimate damage inflicted upon an enemy, and how difficult it is to hunt down an opponent intent on using hit-and-run tactics. Today, North Korea maintains a far larger arsenal of mobile ballistic missile launchers than Iraq ever did—weapons which could likely survive the opening days of a conflict. Of course, U.S. air power has benefited from major advances in technology since 1991, including better sensors, more efficient communication networks, near instantaneous data-links, and drones that can scout out vast swathes of terrain far more efficiently than a jet fighter can. But the Great Scud Hunt still suggests that even outdated mobile missile launchers could prove an especially difficult threat to stamp out.