Israel’s Air Defenses Have Hugely Improved Since It Last Came Under Attack By Ballistic Missiles

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As Israelis brace for a possible Iranian retaliation to the Apr. 1 assassination of a senior Iranian general in Syria, it’s worth exploring how the country’s multilayered air defenses have improved since it last came under attack from ballistic missiles in 1991. It’s also worth evaluating how Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal has also expanded and become much more sophisticated than Iraq’s ever was.

In an unclaimed airstrike on Apr. 1, Israel killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a brigadier general in the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ extraterritorial Quds Force, and six other officers during a meeting in the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus. Zahedi was the most senior Iranian military official assassinated since the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani in a Baghdad drone strike in January 2020.

Iran vowed revenge, arguing that the attack on the embassy constituted an attack on Iranian territory. U.S. President Joe Biden expects an Iranian attack on Israel “sooner rather than later” and Washington believes Iran will attack Israel directly.

Analysts also believe Iran could respond with a direct attack on Israel rather than through regional proxies. If it does so, it might use some of its longer-range ballistic missiles. Numbering over 3,000, Iran has the largest arsenal of these missiles in the Middle East.

Israeli media estimates that while cruise missiles and drones launched from Iranian territory would take two and nine hours, respectively, to reach Israel, ballistic missiles would only take 12 minutes.

Furthermore, Iranian proxies have already targeted Israel with drones and cruise missiles from Syria and Iraq, so such attacks would not have the same impact following the Zahedi assassination and Tehran’s vows to avenge it directly.

(It’s also conceivable Iran might decide to launch a ballistic missile attack directly against Israel from Syria. Tehran might calculate an Israeli retaliation wouldn’t ignite a wider regional war or result in an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s most powerful and valuable proxy.)

Since Israel last came under a significant attack by ballistic missiles in 1991, its air defenses and counterstrike capabilities have both hugely improved. Iran’s missiles today have greater accuracy, longer ranges, and larger payloads than Iraq’s at that time.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launched 43 Scud missiles in 18 barrages at major Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, over 39 days. Israelis at the time stocked up on gas masks, fearing Saddam’s missiles could have had poison gas. Ultimately, Saddam never used chemicals in that war and killed 13 Israelis in the conventional strikes.

The United States, which feared an Israeli retaliation could have compelled the Arab states in the multinational coalition Washington had formed to confront Iraq to withdraw, tried to reassure Israel by deploying Patriot missiles to bolster its air defenses. However, those earlier Patriot models proved largely ineffective against the Iraqi Scuds.

Today’s Patriot systems are much more capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, as the Ukraine war has dramatically demonstrated.

Furthermore, while the Arrow missile that covers the top tier of Israel’s air defense network was only in development in 1991. Israel now has the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 in service. The latter made its combat debut on Nov. 9 when it intercepted a Houthi missile in what was described as the first time “the world had ever seen a battle fought in space.”

Israel also has its domestically-built mid-range David’s Sling system, which successfully intercepted rockets from Gaza for the first time in May 2023, and the well-known, short-range Iron Dome, which has been extensively used to intercept rockets launched from Gaza and Lebanon.

Israel’s missile strike capabilities have also undoubtedly improved significantly since 1991. During the Gulf War, Washington had suggested to Israel that if it felt utterly compelled to retaliate to the Iraqi attacks, it could do so using its Jericho ballistic missiles against targets in Iraq. However, unbeknownst to the United States, Israel’s Jericho missiles were not fully operational when the war began, meaning Israel completely lacked any “ready option for an unmanned strike against Baghdad.”

That’s certainly not the case today. Israel’s Jericho-3 is estimated to have a range of 3,000 miles, meaning Israel could respond to an Iranian ballistic missile attack in kind. Furthermore, the Israeli Navy’s German-made Dolphin submarines are capable of launching cruise missiles, which means Israel even has a second-strike capability.

If Iran does attack Israel with ballistic missiles, many won’t make it to their targets, given the advanced Israeli interceptors they will have to evade or overwhelm. Some undoubtedly will, depending on the size of the barrages Tehran launches.

Furthermore, any Iranian barrage probably won’t be largely indiscriminate and aimed at urban areas like the Iraqi one. Iran simulated a missile attack against a replica of the Israeli Palmahim Air Base it constructed in the Iranian desert in February, with Iranian state media saying it replicated that particular base since it was the “main location” for Israel’s fifth-generation F-35 stealth jets. A month earlier, a conservative Iranian newspaper suggested Iran and its proxies should focus on targeting Israeli airbases that host F-35s. Facilities like these could well be targeted.

Whatever ultimately happens in the coming days and weeks, it’s already abundantly clear that Iran will come up against some of the most sophisticated defensive and offensive weaponry in the world today if it proceeds with a direct attack against its regional archenemy.

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