March 30, 2003

ROBERT FISK claims to have

ROBERT FISK claims to have located a piece of metal bearing a serial number that he says is proof yesterday's missile strike on a Baghdad market was launched by the coalition:

It reads: 30003-704ASB 7492. The letter "B" is scratched and could be an "H". This is believed to be the serial number. It is followed by a further code which arms manufacturers usually refer to as the weapon's "Lot" number. It reads: MFR 96214 09.

Fisk - who could well be right, for once - doesn't know much more than that these numbers and letters are "western style". Any reader with any military background or insight might be able to add further information. Please send me any decoding e-mails.

UPDATE. It's looking good for Fisk. Reader D., whose background is in something-I-can't-say but which is relevant to the case, provides an exceptional analysis:

From the pictures I saw of the market, plus the eyewitness accounts, it didn't look like it could possibly have been caused by a Tomahawk or a bomb, as the media were speculating. It seemed to have been a relatively small blast with a lot of fragmentation. My initial suspicion was Iraqi artillery - not AAA, but a deliberate artillery attack to pin the blame on the US. But Fisk's find has given me reason to revisit this. I now believe the cause was probably a US High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) fired from a USAF F-16. How do I know? Thanks to reporting from the blast site, with a lot of help from Mr Google. Let me run you through it briefly.

The serial number found by Fisk is almost identical to the serial number of a LAU-118 underwing missile launcher, as described here.

This is the important bit. Note the P/N and CAGE numbers, which when put together look eerily similar to Fisk's number (30003-704ASB 7492):

NSN: 1440-01-500-8595AO

P/N: 704AS10896

NOUN: Launcher, Aircraft Guided Missile

CAGE: 30003

APPLICABLE: LAU-118 Launcher used on the F-16 Aircraft

Some more Googling and I learned that the LAU-118 is exclusively used to launch HARMs from F-16s. I can't prove it for sure, but it seems to me to make sense that a HARM missile may well have a serial number very close to that of its launcher. I can't find any other serial numbers which are even remotely close to Fisk's. So a HARM seems to be the initial prime suspect, based on Fisk's serial number.

I then returned to the images and descriptions of the scene. The key things I'd initially deduced about the blast was that it had quite a small kinetic force, not much heat, but a hell of a lot of schrapnel. The crater was very small, a nearby wall appeared undamaged, and yet there were signs of a lot of schrapnel - not least in the reporting of the types of injuries. As it turns out, these are the precise characteristics of a HARM - a small warhead with lots of embedded schrapnel, designed to tear a surface radar to shreds. In fact I can't think of another missile in the US inventory which would so closely match the apparent blast characteristics.

This site provides a detailed description and specs for a HARM.

By themselves, both the serial number and the blast pattern are circumstantial. But put together, I'd argue they strongly suggest a HARM was to blame. One more thing supports that - the guidance system. In the case of Tomahawks and gravity bombs, the US is using weapons guided by GPS and lasers. A person designates the target and then the missile/bomb goes exactly where it is told to go. But a HARM, by its very nature, takes the man out of the targeting loop to a greater extent. Once fired, it guides itself directly to the source of emitting radiation. My guess is that the Iraqis had something emitting in the vicinity of the market - perhaps a mobile radar - which was engaged by the HARM. Once released, the HARM guides itself to the emitter, or wherever it last saw the emitter. So it seems to me more likely that a 'self-guiding' weapon like a HARM is more likely to cause this sort of problem, because once it's launched, it will go where it wants to go.

Anyway, that's my reasoning. It's not conclusive proof, but the weight of evidence - the serial number, the blast pattern and the nature of the targeting system - tends to suggest it was most likely a HARM.

D's informed theory on the source of the missile is supported by reader Rob Lain:

The "MFR" number described by Robert Fisk (which he incorrectly describes as a lot number) is a manufacturer's code, also called a CAGE code (Contractor and Government Entity Code or Commercial and Government Entity Code). This number belongs to Raytheon, best known as producer of the Patriot theater ballistic missile defense system. The CAGE of 96214 refers specifically to an electronics division that I believe Raytheon acquired from Texas Instruments some time ago. Use of the publicly accessible Defense Logistics Agency Federal Logistics Information System Web Inquiry (WEBFLIS) provides company specifics.

A further search using the other alphanumeric string (30003-704ASB 7492, with the "B" possibly being an "H") was fruitless, working on the assumption some or all of the string represented a manufacturer-assigned part number since it isn't in the format of the National Stock (or Item ID) Numbers normally used by our military. An inquiry to either the Defense Department or Raytheon may prove useful in sorting that out.

While I think we have a right to doubt anything Fisk or the Iraqi regime says about the cause of the explosion, the number of casualties, or the physical evidence from the blast, this seems to confirm Fisk's assertion that the piece of metal was from an American weapon, though it greatly pains me to confirm anything that this fuckwad has written.

Given this research, Rob's conclusion is in line with my own:

What does this mean? It means we damn well may have dropped that ordnance on that neighborhood. It means a coalition pilot may have made a mistake or a weapon may have malfunctioned, as will tragically but inevitably happen, even as we justly conduct this war by making extraordinary efforts to limit civilian casualties. And it means Fisk will capitalize on this by accusing Americans of committing a war crime, while the Saddamites pitilessly kill thousands of Iraqi innocents, use them as shields, commit unspeakable war crimes on my comrades-in-arms, prepare to use chemical weapons, and resort to terrorist tactics without a single word from him. What an asshole.

That's sounder reasoning than you'll ever get from Fisk.

Reader Al B. has yet more detail:

I think 30003 is the US Defense Commercial and Government Entity (CAGE) code for US Naval Air Systems.

Similarly, 96214 is the CAGE code for Raytheon.

704AS**** is a DODIC (Department of Defense Identification Code)/NALC (Naval Ammunition Logistics Command) number or part number. The number Fisk found is probably from a forward component of a bomb or missile. This number is used to identify, track and monitor the whole weapon assembly, from the time of manufacture to the time of disposal or destruction.

For example, on older AGM-88s, 704AS2602 was the part number for the Target Detector Unit in the missile. This doesn't give much of a clue as to what Fisk actually found, but we can reasonably speculate that it was a US ship or navy aircraft launched weapon with Raytheon componentry.

Two possibilities that spring to mind are the AGM-154 JSOW or one of the latest variants of the Block VI AGM-88 HARM (D/E spec). If it was a Homing Anti Radiation Missile (ie a radar killer), it makes you wonder where the nearest Iraqi air defence radar was in relation to the ill fated marketplace.

That question has occurred to David Janes, and also to Karl F. Bock:

Just one point on the HARM that I haven't seen addressed: HARM is a specific use device. It is fired at radars and follows the beam in to take out that radar. So, why would a HARM have been fired in the first place? Probably because the Iraqis lit off one of their remaining radars. Are any of these units mobile? A market would be a great place to set up a mobile radar unit. Nice big clearing. You have an air raid, you quickly fire up your radar, direct the triple A, shut the thing off, and get the hell out of Dodge, because sure as hell, a HARM is probably on the way.

Remember, the HARM will follow the radar beam or GO TO THE BEAM'S LAST KNOWN LOCATION. Anyway, nobody is going to fire off a HARM unless it has a target to lock on to. After seeing the Iraqi predilection for placing SAMs and triple A, and presumably their radar units in densely populated areas, it's a wonder we haven't seen more of this.

Meanwhile, an Instapundit reader writes:

For the last few days, I've been wondering how come Bob Fisk hasn't been jumping up and down waving bits of metal with "Raytheon" printed on it. Surely the Iraqis have enough of the stuff lying about the place by now...

Several readers have e-mailed similar ideas here. The more Fisk proclaims his certainty, the more, it seems, people doubt him.

Posted by Tim Blair at March 30, 2003 03:55 PM