“Our Screens Lit Up”: Shooting Down SCUDs Over Riyadh In The Gulf War

Thomas Smith


Thomas Smith grew up in St. Albans, Vermont, a small town in northwestern Vermont, nearly on the Canadian border. His father, a WWII veteran, helped run his grandfather’s pub near the railroad, and his mother raised Thomas and his two sisters. After 8 years of Catholic schools, Thomas switched to the public schools to take advantage of more opportunities. His Uncle Bob, a dentist in the Naval Reserve, sparked his interest in military service. Uncle Bob enjoyed his Navy experiences so much that he switched to Active Duty, and at one point served as a dentist at the Naval Academy. Thomas remembers his apprehension and trepidation when his parents dropped him off at West Point, but supportive classmates helped him get through Beast Barracks. He even had a high school classmate assigned to his company. He did well academically (top 15%), survived swimming, and did pretty well militarily. He was considering branching Engineer, but selected Air Defense Artillery because the technological sophistication of the branch interested him. His first assignment was in Germany with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery, assigned to a Nike Hercules unit as the Launch Platoon Leader. The Hercules was a nuclear-capable system, and required extensive security and regulation to ensure the safety of the warheads. His next assignment was with 4th Battalion, 61st Air Defense Artillery at Ft. Carson, Colorado. His unit was SHORAD (Short Range Air Defense), boasting the Chaparral missile and Vulcan self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. After his battery command time, he attended the Amphibious Warfare School with the Marine Corps at Quantico, before earning a Master’s Degree at Harvard University in 1980 (an MBA from Long Island University followed in 1983). From 1980 to 1983, he taught in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He then helped stand up a Patriot battalion (2nd Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery), deploying the unit from Ft. Bliss to Germany in 1984. Later, he took command of 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery, which deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1990 – 1991 for Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm. The Patriot Missile gained fame during that conflict, and his battalion fought in the “Battle of Riyadh,” firing 32 of their 36 readily available missiles to defeat the Iraqi SCUD threat. A stint at the Pentagon followed, working for the Chief of Staff of the Army and in a think-tank for the Secretary of Defense before he finished his career teaching for 5 years at the War College. After retiring from the military, he has worked as a defense contractor. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his West Point experiences, and his service in the Army. He describes in compelling detail the Battle of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. He highlights the changes in the Air Defense Branch during his career, and discusses his wife, two daughters, and grand-children. At the end of the interview, he reflects on what his service and West Point mean to him.


conflicts Persian Gulf War Cold War
topics West Point History Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie Military Family
interviewer David Siry
date 29 April 2022


name Thomas Smith
institution USMA
graduation year 1971
service Air Defense Artillery
unit 2nd Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery; 4th Battalion, 61st Air Defense Artillery; SOSH; 2nd Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery
specialty Patriot Missile Battalion Desert Shield / Desert Storm / Department of Social Sciences
service dates 1971 2001