The high-tech weaponry being unleashed by American forces on Iraq - including weapons used for the first time in live combat - is earning high marks from U.S. officials in the early stages of Operation Desert Storm.
The Army's Patriot missile, designed to be the centerpiece of the U.S. battlefield air defense, shined in its maiden use Friday, downing an incoming Soviet-built, Iraqi-fired Scud missile soaring toward coalition forces in the skies near Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia. Scud missiles represent an important element of Saddam Hussein's offensive capability, with the possibility of toting chemical or biological warheads.The incident marked the first time an air defense system has knocked down a ballistic missile.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are estimating that some 80 percent of American air strikes have been effective, while reporting as of early Friday that the United States had lost just one aircraft and its pilot in the more than 1,000 air missions flown against Iraq - a Navy FA-18C Hornet, which cost $24 million.
"We're very satisfied with that level of performance on the part of our aircraft," Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
"I think people continue to be awed and thrilled by the skill of our military and the effectiveness of our weapons," added Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "They have worked beyond anybody's expectation or hope."
After a Capitol Hill briefing with Pentagon officials, Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., said the Defense Department "gave very high marks to all of the equipment."
The Navy's Tomahawk sea-launched long-range cruise missiles (costing $1.34 million apiece) also arrived on the scene of actual combat for the first time.
Powell said he was "extremely pleased" with the effectiveness of the Tomahawks.
The massive U.S.-led assault from the skies on Iraq - the world's biggest air action since Vietnam - featured no fewer than 20 different varieties of aircraft from different technological generations.
The skies of the Arabian Peninsula and southwest Asia included supersonic fighters with their afterburners aglow and propeller planes slogging through the air giving radar assistance to fighters and bombers.
The variety of expensive aircraft used in the initial air campaigns may have demonstrated that American taxpayers got their money's worth, including:
- F-117A Stealth fighter ($46.2 million each), designed to elude enemy radar and perform missions in highly defended target areas. The Stealth was initially showcased during the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989.
- E-3 Sentry AWACs ($109.4 million), an airborne warning and control system providing surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of the U.S. and NATO tactical and strategic air defense forces.
- F-15 Eagle ($47.2 million), a maneuverable, tactical fighter designed to gain and maintain air superiority in aerial combat.
- F-16 Fighting Falcon ($18.6 million), a multirole fighter aircraft that can be used in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack.
- EF-111A Raven ($73.9 million), can detect, sort and identify different enemy radars and render them ineffective.
- KC-10A Extender ($73.6 million), which refuels fighters and bombers in the air and simultaneously serves as a cargo plane to carry people and equipment.
- F-111 ($35.9 million), a tactical strike aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds and operate from tree-top level to altitudes above 60,000 feet.
The most modern of the flying, fighting machines was the Stealth fighter. In reality a bomber, the angular craft built at the famed Lockheed "Skunk Works" utilizes its unique shape and composite construction to help slip through radar screens, giving it the element of surprise.
Watching over the carefully scripted operation were the two radar planes, the E-3 Sentry AWACs plane that can peer deep into an enemy's airspace, and the Navy's venerable E-2C Hawkeye. The Hawkeye, which saw service in Vietnam, is a twin-engine turboprop that operates off aircraft carriers and the AWACs is a Boeing 707 jammed with radar equipment.