A Show of Might in the Skies Over Israel

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Iran’s much-anticipated retaliation for Israel’s killing of senior military leaders produced a fiery aerial display in the skies over Israel and the West Bank.

But in important ways, military analysts say, it was just that: a highly choreographed spectacle.

The more than 300 drones and missiles that hurtled through Iraqi and Jordanian airspace Saturday night before they were brought down seemed designed to create maximum drama while inflicting minimal damage, defense officials and military experts say. Just as they did back in 2020 when retaliating for the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iranian leaders this weekend gave plenty of warning that they were launching strikes.

Iran also sequenced the attack, a retaliation for airstrikes on an Iranian Embassy building in Syria on April 1, in such a way that both Israelis and Americans were able to adjust their aerial defenses once the Iranian missiles and drones were in the air.

The result: a lot of bang, but relatively little destruction on the ground.

Few of Iran’s drones and missiles found their intended targets, an inaccuracy level that military experts and defense officials say was probably by design.

Iran planned the attacks in a way that would send a warning to Israel and create deterrence but avoid sparking a war, according to two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said Iran gave countries in the region about 72 hours advance warning.

“I think Iran is very concerned about what comes next if they were too effective,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, a former leader of the U.S. military’s Central Command. “The early notification of what they were doing seems a little interesting to me.”

The repercussions of such an immense aerial attack could still push Israel, Iran and even the United States closer to the wider war that President Biden has been trying to avoid. It was Iran’s first direct attack on Israel after decades of a shadow war, and Israeli leaders were considering a possible response.

Mr. Biden has made clear to Israeli leaders that while the United States is committed to defending Israel, he has no interest in attacking Iran. In fact, the president and his team, hoping to avoid further escalation, are advising Israel that its successful defense against the Iranian airstrikes constituted a major strategic victory that might not require another round of retaliation, U.S. officials said.

In the space of five hours on Saturday night, Israel demonstrated that with the help of its allies, it could provide residents with solid protection from deadly airstrikes.

Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which became operational in 2011, intercepts rockets. But this weekend, Israel primarily used fighter jets and its Arrow 3 system, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles outside the earth’s atmosphere, including those armed with nuclear and other nonconventional warheads, a defense official said.

Iron Dome’s interceptors are six inches wide and 10 feet long. They rely on sensors and computerized guidance to target short-range rockets. The Arrow system can fly longer distances to go after bigger threats.

Jacob Nagel, a former acting Israeli national security adviser, said Israel also used a system called David’s Sling, which shoots down drones, missiles and rockets, and interceptions from Israeli warplanes.

The strikes were proof of concept for the Arrow 3 system, which had mostly been used to take down the occasional incoming missile fired by Houthi militia forces in Yemen. During the Iranian assault, the long-range system saw “more use than during the rest of its time since its invention put together,” Mr. Nagel said. “And we saw that it works.”

“The achievement as a whole is surprising,” he added. “The Iranians never dreamed that we would intercept so many. They must have anticipated that a large chunk would be shot down, but they did not realize that 99 percent would be intercepted.”

Mr. Nagel strongly rebuffed the idea, however, that Iran had not sought to inflict damage on their targets in Israel. “Symbolism is when you fire three or four rockets, not 320” drones and missiles, he said. “They fired all the varieties in their arsenal.”

Israel got help from the United States, Britain and France. American officials said U.S. fighter jets shot down more than 70 exploding drones in the attack, while two Navy warships in the eastern Mediterranean destroyed four to six missiles, and an Army Patriot battery in Iraq knocked down at least one missile that passed overhead. The more than 300 drones and missiles Iran launched was on the high end of what U.S. analysts had expected, one official said.

Jordan, a critic of Israel’s war effort in Gaza, said that its military had shot down aircraft and missiles that entered its airspace during the attack.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired leader of Central Command, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Israel showed that it could defend its airspace, cities and people.

“So I think that Israel this morning is now much stronger than they were yesterday,” he said.

On the surface, that would suggest that Iran came out weaker and showed that it still had a long way to go before it could make good on its leaders’ frequent calls for the destruction of Israel.

But military analysts and defense officials cautioned about drawing firm conclusions about Iranian military capability from Saturday night’s display.

Iran demonstrated that weapons fired from its territory could reach Israel, and for a foe with demonstrated nuclear ambitions, that capability should worry Israeli military strategists, General Votel, who led Central Command from 2016 to 2019, said in an interview.

“They can launch missiles that can reach Israel, even though they were shot down outside Israeli airspace,” General Votel said. “It’s concerning, particularly for a country that is pursuing nuclear weapons capability.”

Afshon Ostovar, an expert on Iran’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said that Iran showcased a large part of its military capability, but not all of it.

Many of Iran’s drones were Shahed-136 “kamikazes,” the same type that Russia is using in Ukraine. These are slow-moving and fly low, he said.

Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iran’s military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin, examined footage of the drones and missile launches published by media outlets affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, as well as photos of debris published by Israel, to determine the types of weapons that Iran used in the attack. Mr. Ostovar analyzed the attack from a strategic point of view, taking into account the weapons that were used.

Iran launched two types of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, both developed by the Guards aerospace unit, both analysts said.

The cruise missile, called the Paveh, has a range of about 1,650 kilometers, or about 1,000 miles. It is the same type of missile that Iran has provided to the Houthi militia group in Yemen and to Shiite militant groups in Iraq. The ballistic missiles, they said, are called Emad and have a similar range.

Iran also used the Kheibar Shekan ballistic missile, one of its newest and most advanced. The precision-guided missile has a range of 1,450 kilometers, or about 900 miles. Iranian military officials have said its warhead can evade missile defense systems.

“The mix of weapons is what you would have expected in a substantial attack against Israel,” Mr. Hinz said. “They have basically used their sophisticated system to conduct these strikes. Launching over 100 ballistic missiles over a short period of time is quite something, and doing a combined attack with that many different weapons is really the upper tier of potential actions they could do.”


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