Iran launches Middle East's biggest missile and drone assault but fails to deliver

Military analysts suggest wave of 120 ballistic missiles shows Tehran aimed to take out Israel's defences and attack was not merely symbolic

A handout picture released by the Israeli Ministry of Defence on July 28, 2019 shows the launch of the Arrow-3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in Alaska. Israel and the United States have successfully carried out tests of a ballistic missile interceptor that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday provides protection against potential threats from Iran.
The tests of the Arrow-3 system were carried out in the US state of Alaska and it successfully intercepted targets above the atmosphere, Israel's defence ministry said in a statement. -  == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / ISRAELI MINISTRY OF DEFENCE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==
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Never before has Israel suffered a missile attack on such a scale after Iran launched a sophisticated first assault on the country that ultimately failed.

Military analysts have told The National Iran's wave of 120 modern ballistic missiles was not designed to be symbolic but a major attempt to overwhelm Israel’s air defences.

The failure of Tehran’s assault will also have a significant psychological impact on the country's missile deterrence value as in the past its leaders have threatened their stockpile would “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa”.

Not symbolic

There is an argument the strike was a calibrated response to Israel’s bombing of Iran’s Syrian consulate that killed seven officers, but not so heavy that it would invite a major Israeli retaliation.

That conclusion stems from the gradual build-up of the attack, signalled by the launch of an estimated 170 kamikaze drones, mostly the Shahed 136 that has been used extensively by Russia in Ukraine.

But Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iranian missiles, called the attack “absolutely not a symbolic strike” as it was the biggest ever combined attack of drones ballistic missiles in the Middle East.

“This was clearly an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s missile and air defences,” the IISS think tank analyst said. “If you look at the numbers used, this was a very substantial strike as you have to look very hard to find another where more than 100 ballistic missiles have been launched within a very short period of time.”

There was a major co-ordinated defence against the offensive, with US and British RAF jets used to shoot down drones and cruise missiles before they entered Israeli airspace.

Arrow ballistic defence

The one-way attack drone package sent Israel on to full alert, with air-raid sirens sounding from 2am on Sunday morning.

At about the same time, Israeli tracking systems, as well as a US Centcom command centre in Qatar, picked up a barrage of 20 cruise missiles launched from Iran.

These were most likely Paveh missiles that cruise at a relatively slow estimated 600kph, just above ground level, with a range of 1,650km.

But it was the ballistic missiles, possibly the new Khorramshahr 4 models, that have a range of up to 2,000km and a 1,500kg warhead, or the Emad rockets that formed the most challenging part of the attack.

With Israel 1,200km from Iran’s nearest border, travelling at their maximum speed of Mach 16 the missiles would have taken four minutes to reach their targets.

But Israel has the world’s most advanced air defence system, with its Iron Dome network able to take out short-range threats and its system of high altitude Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 interceptors focusing on advanced ballistic threats.

Iran slap-down

That Israel shot down 99 per cent of the approaching missiles, with minimal civilian casualties, can be seen as a “slap-down” for Iran’s military, said retired Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army nuclear and chemical weapons specialist.

“This is what happens when a second-tier force comes up against a first-tier one” he said. “Taking out 99 per cent of incoming missiles is extraordinary and the co-ordination with US, UK and other allies has probably left Iran stumped, although they might well have thought that this outcome was the likelihood.”

Will Israel retaliate?

With Iran stating that its "Operation True Promise" had concluded, almost before the last missile had landed, the biggest question now remains – what will Israel’s response be?

Tom Fletcher, a former foreign policy adviser to three British prime ministers, said the Middle East had entered a new game of “high-stakes poker”.

“The sheer scale of it is a chilling signal of Tehran’s capability and reach,” he told the BBC. “But also that both sides are clearly willing to play with fire.”

An attack on Iran itself could not be ruled out, said military expert Sam Cranny-Evans of the Rusi think tank.

While its western allies will be using all the leverage they can to prevent a significant escalation, Israeli politicians will already have been presented with detailed and well-rehearsed strike options on Iran’s military infrastructure.

“Israel will certainly retaliate, although they would have the choice not to,” said Mr Cranny-Evans. “There are two broad options. A restrained and focused series of strikes against key Iranian targets, including air defences, launchers and missile depots, or against proxies in Syria and Yemen.

“The second would be unrestrained strikes at Iran in general, starting with critical military infrastructure.”

Deterrence failure

After decades of proxy fighting, this is the first time Iran has directly attacked Israel, yet the offensive’s failure could have a significant impact on the Tehran regime’s thinking.

“Iran and Hezbollah’s missile arsenal were the major deterrence aimed at preventing Israel from launching a strike against Tehran’s nuclear programme,” said Mr Hinz. “Now that Israel has shown that it can survive even a massive attack, the question is whether Iran’s deterrence has been degraded.”

But he also warned it could lead to Iran expediting its nuclear weapon programme to react as a major deterrent.

Col de Bretton-Gordon said it was unclear what Tehran could do next, suggesting “if Iran had nuclear weapons it would be a different story”.

But he added that if Iran’s attack had killed 50 civilians “the Israelis would have gone absolutely bonkers and be bombing Tehran as we speak”.

Updated: April 15, 2024, 10:04 AM