Why Do Middle Eastern Dictators Love Scuds?

Originally published on August 29, 2011 12:58 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Of course, World War III between NATO and the Warsaw Pact never happened. But scuds with conventional warheads proved a durable export item for the old Soviet military. They were used by Iraq, and now they're used by Libya.

D: "Why do so Many Dictators Use Scud Missiles?" And Brian Palmer joins us from New York. Well, that's the question, why do so many dictators use scud missiles?

BRIAN PALMER: Dictators use scud missiles because they were a convenient weapon to get their hands on back in the '70s and '80s when they didn't have much of an air force and, therefore, no ability to project their power beyond their borders. And the Soviet Union kind of was willing to sell them to them.

PALMER: In recent days, they just haven't had a particularly strong flow of weapons into their country and so they use what they have and the scud is what they still have.

SIEGEL: The post-Cold War life of the scud missile used, again, without nuclear weapons. I guess the main event was in Iraq, when Iraq fired them against Israel and also against Saudi Arabia.

PALMER: Yeah. And then - and here they are again. What they do is they basically wheel them out of their hiding place. They're very easy to operate. You point them where you want them to go, which is a fairly large area within 150 to 200 miles. You send it on its way and you kind of close your eyes and see where it lands.

SIEGEL: You're right, though, that Scuds were an inconvenient weapon in one sense because they use a liquid fuel that complicates storing them.

PALMER: The scud uses a liquid fuel, so imagine it's basically gasoline. You can't leave it inside the missile because it'll corrode it and so what they have is a missile that can't be fired very quickly and so they're not convenient in that sense.

SIEGEL: Now, when Saddam Hussein famously launched scud missiles against Israel, he did terrorize many residents of Tel Aviv. On the other hand, the scuds didn't actually do very much damage. They didn't hit very much. As you say, the idea is to point them and hope they land someplace. They're not very accurate weapons.

PALMER: No. That's why weapons experts refer to the scud as a weapon of terror rather a tactical weapon. You can't really achieve any kind of military objective with a scud except for scaring the people in the general area where you're shooting it because it's essentially a game of Russian roulette. If you lived in Tel Aviv and Israel at the time, you knew a scud was unlikely to hit you, but you knew that it was a possibility and this kind of creates this wave of fear through a population.

SIEGEL: Would you agree with that?

PALMER: So, Saddam wanted to use them against Iran, Iran wanted to use them against him. Libya was in a war with Chad. Egypt and Israel were not getting along well, and so if you looked on the marketplace and you saw, here's a missile that's got just enough range to hit my neighbor, this is exactly what I'm going to use.

SIEGEL: That's Brian Palmer of Slate magazine talking about the scud missile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.