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Saturday, March 22

U.S. destroys Iraq mobile missile launchers

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region - U.S. Air Force jets destroyed two Iraqi mobile surface-to-surface missile launchers Friday, taking less than 30 minutes to accomplish a task that eluded coalition forces throughout the first Persian Gulf War.

Col. Tom Jones, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, said post-strike analysis had confirmed destruction of the launchers near the southern Iraq city of Basra.

The trucks, each sporting four launch tubes, were destroyed within a half hour after one launched an Ababil-100 missile, according to Col. Cesar Rodriguez, the wing’s director of operations. It was the sixth time in two days that Iraq had launched missiles at Kuwait.

If the Air Force did indeed destroy two missile launchers that quickly after a launch, it would represent a quantum leap in what the Air Force has identified as a crucial weakness: the ability to rapidly locate mobile or time-sensitive targets, assign jets to bomb them and put explosives on target.

Those links in the "kill chain" never connected during the 1991 gulf war, when the great Scud hunt over western Iraq failed to stop 86 launches against Israel and U.S. allies. The U.S. never found and destroyed a single Scud launcher.

"We have closed the loop much more quickly," Rodriguez said of the Air Force’s growing ability to engage what it calls "time-sensitive targets."

The improvement depends in part on better technology: Sensor systems such as the Joint STARS ground surveillance plane were in their infancy in 1991, and better computing systems allowing planners to analyze and act on information more quickly, he said.

But the quicker reaction is also a matter of emphasis: The first gulf war taught the Air Force a painful lesson on the need to speed its reaction time.

When U.S. reconnaissance detected the launch from the Basra vicinity, alarms sounded here and across the region, forcing several jets to delay their takeoff. Jones said the missile is believed to have landed about 25 miles north of this air base, where media have been allowed on condition they not name the base or its host nation.

When the alert ended, jets took off and were re-directed to the spot where analysts believed the missile launch originated. Rodriguez said this "armed reconnaissance" discovered the launchers and destroyed them with a combination of laser- and satellite-guided bombs just before sundown Friday.

Rodriguez said the mobile launchers are significant not because of their military importance. Scuds did little to stop U.S. forces in 1991. Politically, however, their impact can be enormous: Coalition forces dedicated huge resources during the first gulf war to tracking down mobile Scuds because their attacks threatened to widen the war by goading Israel into retaliating and terrorizing the friendly Persian Gulf nations hosting allied troops.

"This is purely a terror weapon," Rodriguez said. "They also can become weapons of mass destruction simply by screwing on a different warhead."