WASHINGTON (AP) - Pentagon investigators suspect U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries may have shot down two coalition jets over Iraq because the systems mistook the planes for Iraqi missiles.
Investigations of the incidents - responsible for three of the war's five airplane shootdown fatalities - are focusing on a system touted by the Army as a reliable missile-killer but one which has been repeatedly plagued by problems hitting its targets.
The father of Navy Lt. Nathan White, killed by Patriots on April 2, said he hopes the probe will lead to improvements that reduce the chance American anti-missile systems will down friendly planes.
"You go through the normal anger, but I also know it's a war situation," said Dennis White, a former Air Force pilot who flew C-130 cargo planes during the Vietnam War. "There'll be some changes, I know, but you'd think you wouldn't have to put in stuff to protect your own people."
The U.S. military is investigating three Patriot incidents: the White case; the downing of a British Tornado jet on March 22 that killed both airmen aboard; and two days after the Tornado shootdown, when a U.S. F-16 pilot fired a missile at a Patriot battery, believing the radar had targeted his plane. The pilot's missile damaged the Patriot radar battery; no one was injured.
Critics have questioned why Patriot programming and firing rules weren't changed after the British jet was downed.
"I can see pilot error being the cause of one incident, but three pilots can't all be making the same mistake," said Victoria Samson, a missile expert at the Center for Defense Information, an independent Washington think tank. Possible pilot errors include straying from designated safe air corridors or failing to turn off electronic equipment that sets off the Patriots.
Pentagon officials say their probes have not determined whether all three incidents were caused by the same problem or whether mistaken identity was to blame. But top officials at U.S. Central Command strongly suspect misidentification.
Jets flying in certain ways can appear to Patriot radar systems as incoming missiles, according to officials from Central Command and the Army, which operates the Patriots. A spokesman for Raytheon Co., which makes Patriot radars and older versions of the missiles, declined comment.
Patriot systems can be set to automatically fire at incoming missiles. When the missiles are set to "semiautomatic" or manual, Patriot operators have just a few seconds to decide whether to fire.
Coalition aircraft have Identify Friend or Foe, or IFF, systems that broadcast an identifying signal. Patriot systems are designed to seek and recognize those signals and not fire on friendly aircraft. But the Patriot system is not designed to look for an IFF signal from a target it identified as a missile, because missiles don't have IFF transponders.
Shortly before his last mission, White sent an e-mail to his family about the air war over Iraq. He described how pilots must "navigate through a maze of airborne highways that try to deconflict aircraft and of course steer you away from the Army's Patriot batteries."
"Obviously it was a concern, or he wouldn't have mentioned it," Dennis White said.
Investigators also are looking at possible IFF system problems, at either the aircraft or Patriots end. Other causes could include errors by the pilots, the Patriot crews or both.
Central Command officials say Patriots downed at least 10 of the 17 missiles fired at Kuwait.
The United States fired 22 Patriots during the war, White House budget chief Mitchell Daniels told National Public Radio. That means 15 percent to 20 percent of the Patriots fired shot down the two coalition planes - of a total four shot down during the war - depending on whether one or two of the missiles hit the British jet.
During the 1991 Gulf war, the military and Raytheon also claimed high success - up to 80 percent - with earlier versions of the Patriot. Congress' General Accounting Office later found Patriots intercepted no more than four of 47 Iraqi Scud missiles, a 9 percent success rate. The Pentagon has spent more than $3 billion improving the Patriots since then.
On April 2 returning to the USS Kitty Hawk after a bombing run over northern Iraq, White flew his F/A-18C Hornet over Karbala, where Army units were fighting their way toward Baghdad. The Patriots that downed White were defending the Army's 3rd Infantry Division around that Euphrates River city 50 miles south of the Iraqi capital.
Navy officials told his father that White radioed he saw the two missiles launch - a pair of white flashes in his night-vision equipment. White tried to evade them, but in less than 10 seconds they had destroyed his plane, his father said in a telephone interview from his home in Abilene, Texas.
A 30-year-old father of three, White was buried April 24 at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I don't know much about the Patriot system works, but there had to be an obvious failure," Dennis White said. "It took the life of someone very dear to us."
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.