In the comments over my recent post on Libya’s remaining stockpile of Scud B missiles, some commentators asked about press reports that NATO aircraft shot down a Scud B.

I can now confirm that did not/not happen.

Col. David Lapan, Director of the Press Office at the Department of Defense, told Global Security Newswire’s Elaine Grossman that  “no shootdown occurred”  in response to a question about reports that a NATO warplane had intercepted a Libyan Scud missile launched from the Sirte area on Monday 22 August 2011.

Perhaps more amusingly, Elaine also got a voicemail from an unnamed NATO spokeswoman that “It’s absolutely not true.  We haven’t made any intervention.  Your issue, we don’t confirm it at all.”

I presume the NATO spokeswoman meant interception.   (Elaine gave men permission to publish these because GSN has a busy schedule.  And anyway, who publishes negative results?)

Network Centric Airborne Defense Element

So why was anyone interested at all?  After all, everybody knows that combat aircraft can’t shoot down ballistic missiles.

A perfect example is that pilots in Desert Storm reported being able to see Iraqi Scud missiles after they were launched, but unable to do anything about it.  In a very readable account of the role of the F-15E in Desert Storm, Strike Eagle: Flying the F-15E in the Gulf War, William Smallwood related this story by a pilot named Two Dogs McIntyre:

… when we get this call from AWACS. ‘A Scud has been launched at coordinates such and such! We’ve already seen it of course.  It’s a huge flame and your first reaction is that it’s a SAM and you want to make a defensive reaction.  Then you see that it is going straight up.

Now, it turns out “theoretically” Two Dogs might have been able to use an AMRAAM in a missile defense role. “Theoretically, AMRAAM can intercept Scud missiles in flight,” an Air Force official told Defense Daily in 1992,”but the shooter has to be so well located (relative to the Scud) to launch the AMRAAM that there is not a high probability of kill.”  Tactical Air Command completed an early 1992 study on how the Air Force “might be able to play a role in theater missile defense (TMD) by intercepting tactical ballistic missiles (TBM) in the early boost phase after they are launched” that examined the option of a modified AMRAAM.

It took a long time, but in 2006, Raytheon won a contract for key elements of the what was called the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element – a system that centered on an extended-range AIM-120 AMRAAM converted for use against boosting ballistic missiles.  Still, NCADE seemed lost amid a number of not-very-promising boost-phase options before March 2011, when the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency signed a Memorandum of Agreement “to explore design and development of the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE).”

So NCADE is reasonably close to be flight-testable.  Whether it will provide a cost-effective operational capability remains to be seen.  During Desert Storm, the Army deployed the Patriot for the first time in a missile defense role.  The Air Force also developed a completely new conventional bunker-buster, the GBU-28, in less than six weeks.

Some of us wondered whether the Air Force might have tried the same thing with NCADE in Odyssey Dawn, although that appears now to be merely wishful thinking. Still, it was fun to read about NCADE, which I had overlooked.

Anatomy of Rumor

So, what was the source of this crazy rumor?  The short version is Al Jazeera TV.

The long version is a little more interesting and may serve as a cautionary tale about how media practices can “launder” bad reporting.

Al Jazeera TV initially reported ” “A NATO warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home city east of Tripoli.” The quotation is from the Al Jazeera blog.  It seems the claim was originally made on air, but I can find neither a clip nor a transcript.  Yasmine Saleh at Reuters picked up the Al Jazeera TV report, reporting that “A NATO warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home city east of Tripoli, Al-Jazeera TV reported on Monday citing information received by one of its correspondents.”

Now, how the correspondent acquired this information is not explained.  Did NATO announce it?  The opposition? A reader with a passing knowledge of missile defense and combat aircraft should immediately be wary of the sourcing, given what an unlikely claim this is.

In a separate Reuters story, however, a different reporter named Phil Stewart got a “US defense official” on condition of anonymity to confirm “Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fired a suspected scud missile.” Stewart’s story, however, does not mention any intercept.

These two separate Reuters articles got tangled, leading lots of other reporters, like Molly Hennessy-Fiske at the Los Angeles Times, to claim that Reuters had confirmed the shoot-down.  It seemed that the two Reuters reports, although written by different authors, became a single story with the Al Jazeera claim report now attributed to Stewart’s anonymous US defense official.  The Irish Times, for example, published a story credited to “agencies” that asserted that “A Nato warplane shot down a scud missile fired from Sirte, Muammar Gadafy’s home city east of Tripoli, a US defence official confirmed.”

The next sentence in the Irish Times story — “The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, could not immediately say what the intended target was.” — mirrors the structure of the Reuters report by Phil Stewart, with the juicy Al Jazeera tidbit about the shootdown thrown in.

Surely most of the blame must go to Al Jazeera for its bad reporting.  But some of the blames also falls on the practice, widespread, of attributing a story to a news wire or a papers rather than the individual reporters.  That is something I try not to do on this blog.

So, there you have it. There was no shootdown.