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In late March and early April of 2003, tragedy struck in the skies over Iraq. As the U.S.-led coalition marched toward Baghdad, two jet fighters–a British Royal Air Force Tornado and a U.S. Navy F/A-18–were shot down, killing two British crew members, Lt. Kevin Main and Lt. David Williams, and a navy airman, Lt. Nathan White. These deaths weren’t caused by Saddam Hussein’s purported arsenal of missiles, or even by antiaircraft fire, but by U.S. Patriot missile systems–built by Waltham, MA, defense contractor Raytheon and operated by the U.S. Army–that had erroneously identified the friendly planes as enemy missiles. In a third incident, a U.S. jet fired on a Patriot radar unit that the jet believed was an enemy surface-to-air missile system. Luckily, this incident caused no injury in the air or on the ground.

For Raytheon and the army, it was deja vu with a deadly ending. During the Gulf War, the army claimed that Patriots were regularly shooting Iraqi Scud missiles out of the sky. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush even told cheering Raytheon employees that “Patriot is proof positive that missile defense works.” Bush added that the system had shot down 41 of 42 Scuds. An investigation by a U.S. Congressional panel, however, concluded in 1992 that Patriots downed no more than four out of 47 Scuds–less than 9 percent–and added that “the public and the Congress were misled” by Raytheon and the first Bush administration.

Between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, the Pentagon pumped some $3 billion into improving and expanding the Patriot system. It is, after all, the most advanced system in the world for countering threats from the air, including attack planes and a wide variety of missiles owned by more than two dozen nations. The Pentagon investment was intended to buy improvements to software and guidance systems, as well as an additional type of “interceptor” (read “missile”) built by a subcontractor, Lockheed Martin. The new interceptor, known as PAC-3, is designed to directly strike and destroy its target, whereas the older model, PAC-2, was designed to explode near it. A PAC-2 killed the British crew, and a pair of PAC-3s killed White.

Beyond assuring the safety of friendly troops and civilians, Raytheon has a great deal at stake in showing that the Patriot missile system can work reliably. It sells the system to Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Greece, Japan, Israel, and Taiwan in addition to the United States. And missile defense systems including Patriot are a core part of Raytheon’s Tewksbury, MA-based Integrated Defense Systems business, which had 2004 net sales of $3.5 billion.

Given the extensive Pentagon investment in upgrading the Patriot system in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was reason to believe that the Patriot was reliable. But disaster struck anyway. The events of those two tragic days in 2003 reveal three dangers that can lurk in any advanced weapons program. First, there can be purely technological problems with the system itself. Second, there can be problems–both human and technological–with how the system is used in the field. Finally, neither corporations nor militaries are generally known for their willingness to confess errors and bring serious problems to light.

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