Lessons learned from Iran's drone barrage into Israel

Although most drones and missiles were shot down, Israel might not have been so successful without the help of its allies. Al Majalla explains how 13 April reset the regional power balance.

Iran's missile barrage was a deliberate showcase of its military prowess, a demonstration of how far into Israel it could reach.
Dave Murray
Iran's missile barrage was a deliberate showcase of its military prowess, a demonstration of how far into Israel it could reach.

Lessons learned from Iran's drone barrage into Israel

The large-scale air attack Iran launched against Israel in April was the first direct strike of its kind. Tehran had never before used weapons under its own control to attack its enemy. Codenamed Operation Sincere Promise, it began at 8 p.m. on 13 April, lasted five hours, and revealed much about Iran’s military reach.

Two weeks earlier, an Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus killed 13 people, including senior Iranian military leaders. Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, famed commander of the elite Quds Force, was among the dead. Israelis cheered because Zahedi was a key figure in managing and arming Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon, including Hezbollah, but for Iran, this was a clear violation of its sovereignty that could not go unanswered.

Israel responded to Iran’s response despite Iranian threats of retaliation. On 19 April, the Israelis hit Iranian military sites near Isfahan, including a launch base used on 13 April. While there were conflicting accounts of the impact, it ushered in a new era of confrontation, with new rules of engagement that will shape the region’s dynamics. What do these ‘messages of fire’ mean for the Middle East after an unprecedented night in the region’s history?

Read more: Shadow war no more: How will the new Iran-Israel power dynamic affect the region?

A show of strength

As sirens blared out across 720 locations throughout Israel, residents in the north, near the occupied Golan Heights, and in Israel’s southern cities sought shelter. Ever since the Damascus consulate bombing, Israel expected a response. Soon, interceptions of Iran’s drones and missiles by allies and Israel’s own air defence system lit up the night skies not just over Israel but over Jordan and Syria.

Iran's missile barrage was a deliberate showcase of its military prowess and a demonstration of how far into Israel it could reach. Yet the damage in Israel was minimal because the vast majority of drones and missiles were shot down. Israeli army spokesman Adm. Daniel Hagari said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and at least 110 ballistic missiles. To achieve a simultaneous strike, the missiles were sent about an hour after the slower-moving drones.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah said it fired two barrages of missiles at an Israeli military base in the occupied Golan Heights. It was designed to overwhelm Israel’s air defences, including its Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems, with advanced Shahed-136 and Shahed-238 suicide drones clearing the path for a second wave of cruise and ballistic missiles.

The medium-range ballistic missiles included the Emad (750kg warhead), the Gadr-110 (2,000 km range and one-tonne warhead), the Khyber Chikan (500kg warhead), and the Shahab-3B (700kg warhead), based on a North Korean version. In response to Iran’s launch, states including Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait all closed their airspace, while Egypt and others put air defence systems on high alert.

Iran's meticulously planned and unprecedented attack on Israel was a daunting display of its capabilities.

Tom Fletcher, former UK ambassador to Lebanon

Dome, Sling and Arrows

At around 2 a.m. on 14 April, Israel's Iron Dome system echoed throughout Israel, the occupied West Bank, and the Dead Sea with the kind of short-range interceptions it was designed for. It is one of Israel's multi-layered air defence systems designed to protect against various threats, including ballistic missiles (which can travel above the atmosphere), cruise missiles, and low-flying projectiles. Israel deployed at least 10 Iron Dome batteries. Each is equipped with radar, a command-and-control system, and the ability to calculate attack risks. It intercepts short-range missiles and artillery shells from distances of up to 70km.

The next tier is David's Sling, a joint project with the United States that uses Stunner and SkyCeptor interceptor missiles to neutralise short-range threats, including drones and ballistic and cruise missiles up to 300km. The third level consists of the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 systems, also jointly developed with the US, plus an advanced version of the American Patriot missile.

Arrow-2 uses fragmentation warheads to destroy incoming ballistic missiles in their final stage as they dive towards their targets in the upper atmosphere. Their range is about 90km, with a maximum altitude of around 52km. Arrow-3 features hit-to-kill technology to intercept hypersonic ballistic missiles before they re-enter the atmosphere, with a range of 2,400km. Additionally, Israel deploys F-35 stealth fighters to intercept drones and cruise missiles.

International support

Hagari claimed 99% of Iranian drones and missiles were successfully intercepted, either outside Israeli airspace or over the country itself. The long 1,000km flight distance from Iran to Israel (crossing Iraq, Syria, and Jordan) helped give Israel time. Of the 30 cruise missiles launched by Iran, 25 were shot down before they entered Israeli airspace. The Arrow and Iron Dome systems also proved effective against Iran's drones, with none of the 170 breaching Israeli airspace.

Yet Israel's air defence that night also included its allies. Several countries, including the US, the UK, Jordan, and France, helped counter the Iranian attack. The French Navy provided radar coverage, while the US, UK, and Jordan helped with interceptions. The US coordinated that international response from its Joint Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar, which covers an area from northern Iraq to the southern Arabian Gulf.

US President Joe Biden praised US forces that "helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles" launched by Iran, having ordered US aircraft and ballistic missile defence destroyers to the region. US Central Command said its forces destroyed more than 80 drones over southern Syria near the border with Jordan and intercepted at least six ballistic missiles.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK's Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jets downed several Iranian drones and provided intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from their deployment locations in Cyprus and Romania. France's Emmanuel Macron said he deployed naval assets at Jordan's request. Jordan opened its airspace to US and Israeli planes, despite Iranian warnings, and intercepted several projectiles, assumed to be drones, citing self-defence.

The sky over the Jordanian capital, Amman, is lit up by burning Iranian drones and missiles that have been intercepted before reaching Israel.

Gauging success

From around 120 fired, a small number of Iran's ballistic missiles evaded air defence systems and landed in Israel. Four hit Nevatim Airbase, damaging a C-130 transport aircraft, an unused runway, and empty storage facilities. Iran was believed to have targeted Israel's F-35s. Four more ballistic missiles fell on Ramon Airbase, causing no damage. Photos published by Israel's Air Force shortly after the attack showed F-35s and F-15s returning to base after "successful interceptions and air defence missions".

Shortly after the attacks began, Iran's UN envoy said: "As far as we are concerned... this matter can be considered over. If, on the other hand, the regime in Israel makes the next mistake, Iran's response will be much more severe," adding that the US should "stay away". For his part, Iran's President Ibrahim Raisi—who has since died in a helicopter crash—said Iran had taught Israel a "lesson" as promised by his Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Iran's strikes were a limited act of self-defence and the West should appreciate the "restraint" Tehran had shown.

Less than a week later, in the early hours of 19 April, explosions reverberated across Isfahan in central Iran, which hosts crucial Iranian military infrastructure. Israel remained silent after the attack. Isfahan is home to a large airbase, a major missile production complex, several nuclear facilities, and the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which produces Shahed-129 and Shahed-136 drones. It is also involved in fuel production.

On 20 April, The New York Times reported that satellite images revealed the strike on Hastam Shikari Airbase in Isfahan had targeted a critical component of an air defence system. At least three missiles are believed to have been fired. The report also indicated that the attack, which employed precision-guided munitions on the Eighth Air Combat Base in Isfahan, damaged or destroyed a radar used for tracking targets in the Russian-made S-300 air defence systems.

A senior US official, speaking to ABC News, said the radar site was guarding Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, where Iran has been enriching uranium. Despite conflicting claims about the scale of the Isfahan attack (Iranian state media downplayed the extent of damage), experts concur that it was hit by air-to-surface missiles rather than drones. For its part, the Financial Times reported a military briefing in which experts said photos of missile debris, specifically booster remnants, suggest it was probably an Israeli-made Blue Sparrow ballistic missile, which has a range of up to 1,200km.

Reading the signs

Most believe 19 April was meant as a warning from Israel. There was no significant damage to Isfahan itself, meaning that both parties had shown some restraint in their responses, perhaps indicating a desire to avoid escalation. That is partly due to pressure from the US and other allies keen for Israel not to turn a proxy war in the Middle East into a full-blown direct conflict. "Take the win," Biden is reported to have told Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call.

Dave Murray

Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon and foreign policy advisor to several British prime ministers, said Iran's attack was "a daunting display of its capabilities and influence, unprecedented and meticulously planned". He felt that Iran's prior warnings "made it easier to counter the attacks" but suggested that Tel Aviv may be underestimating Tehran.

"This incident highlighted that Israel does not realise that it is dealing with a major Middle Eastern power and should not overlook the current regional balance of power. It also demonstrated that Israel cannot prevent Iran from striking within its borders if it decides to do so."

Fletcher's comments underscore Western concern over Iran's expanding capabilities, suggesting a policy reassessment may be necessary. After the largest and most powerful drone strike in military history, the West thinks there may be an existential threat to Israel now that Iran has attacked it directly. Some analysts concluded that the attack was a failure due to the very high interception rate. Yet the real question is why Washington and several other capitals were informed of the strike days in advance.

The context requires an appreciation of nuance, the shadowy nature of US-Iranian relations, and the risks and opportunities inherent in maintaining the existing system of mutual interests. Likewise, Israel's success in countering the Iranian attack can be attributed to its advanced air defence system, but it also reveals a need for international support in some areas. Under a huge barrage, Israel has only limited self-reliance. It shows that Israel's capacity for comprehensive strategic action is now constrained, which alters the calculations when considering regional deterrence.

By breaking the taboo and engaging in direct conflict, Israel and Iran may have altered the dynamics and the rules of engagement. Their action may even have ushered in a new era of real-time security and defence cooperation between the US, Israel, and Arab states, guarding against common threats.

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