Iran’s drone/missile barrage attack against Israel failed – but important lessons remain

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

The failure of Iran’s drone, cruise missile and ballistic missile attack on Israel provides ample evidence of the effectiveness of a well organised, multi-layered air defence system – but it also underlines the need for other nations to increase their air defence capabilities against a new kind of threat where drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles will be used in ever more complex ways to overwhelm air defences.

The March 29 attack by Russia on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure featured a similar mass barrage, including 99 drones and missiles hitting regions across the country.  And the 7 October 2023 Hamas attack on Israel included a barrage of rockets launched from Gaza which preoccupied Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, allowing Hamas to use other small commercial drones to strike watchtowers and video cameras to allow the ground forces to move forward.

But in its latest attack, Iran did not overwhelm Israel’s air defences and most of the threats were dealt with many miles from the borders of Israel.

“Of approximately 170 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Iran launched, zero crossed into Israeli territory, according to an April 14 press briefing from Israel Defence Force Spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. “Dozens of them were intercepted by Israeli Air Force fighter jets, our aerial defence array and the aerial defence systems and aircraft of our partners. From the more than 30 cruise missiles Iran launched, none crossed into Israeli territory. 25 of them were intercepted by IAF fighter jets outside the country’s borders. Out of over 120 ballistic missiles, only a few crossed into Israeli territory, with the rest being intercepted. These fell at the Nevatim Air Force Base, causing only minor damage to infrastructure.”

“Unfortunately, a ten-year-old girl was severely injured by shrapnel, said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. “We wish her a speedy recovery. Other than her, as far as we know, there are no additional casualties.”

Unlike the Russian attack on Ukraine’s energy network and the October 7 attack, there was very little surprise about the timing or the nature of Iran’s attack and Israel’s well prepared air defences had time to get ready.

While Israel’s Arrow and David’s Sling missiles dealt with the long and medium range Iranian missile threat, fighter jets from Israel and its allies easily dealt with the slow, unmanoeuvrable Shahed-136 drones launched from Iran in large numbers to overwhelm Israeli air defence radars.

According to the Jerusalem Post. “The Iron Dome, which defends well against Hamas and Hezbollah’s simple rockets, is less relevant for drones and fancier long-range missiles.”

Iran and its allies had been testing Israeli air defences for days before the main attack. On April 10, Rafael reported that: “the Israeli Navy successfully deployed Rafeal’s C-DOME™ to intercept a suspicious hostile target which posed a significant threat to Israeli assets and strategic sites in southern Israel. C-DOME is the naval version of the Iron Dome® air and missile defence system and is integrated on the Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar 6 corvettes. This marks the system’s first combat interception, following a series of comprehensive tests over the last several years, serving as a major milestone in the C-DOME’s operational capabilities.”

And with Israel poised to deploy its Iron Beam 100kW class High Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS) shortly, there is clear confidence in Israel that its air defences will be capable of meeting whatever threat will emerge over the next few years. But there will also be a concern among many in Israel, and certainly among its allies, about the pace with which the drone war in Russia is evolving and the capabilities that are being exported worldwide.

In particular, the prospect of deploying artificial-intelligence (AI) to more adroitly coordinate drone, ballistic missile/cruise missile assaults is a growing concern and one which will require continual investment in new counter-UAS and missile defence technologies to remain several steps ahead of the threat.

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(Image: IDF fighter aircraft engaging Iranian Shahed drones during the April 14 attack – IDF)




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