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Iran attack tests limits of US-backed Israeli air defenses

Courtney McBride and Peter Martin, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Early signs suggest Israel’s vaunted air defenses passed their biggest test yet, repelling an unprecedented barrage from Iran.

Israel and its allies intercepted the “vast majority” of the 200 drones and missiles fired by Iran, most before they entered Israeli airspace, military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a briefing. He said the only impacts were to a 10-year-old girl who was badly wounded and minor damage to an army base.

The attack drones and cruise missiles “are likely part of a coordinated multi-phase response in an attempt to overwhelm and confuse Israeli air defenses,” said Michael DiMino, a former CIA analyst and current fellow at Defense Priorities. Iranian state media said the country had also fired ballistic missiles, which may be far more powerful and fly in a high arc before hitting their targets.

Israel’s U.S.-backed system of interconnected radar and mobile missile batteries is designed to shoot down rockets, missiles and mortars that could hit Israeli population centers or important infrastructure. It has been lauded for reaching a 90% interception rate in past attacks.

U.S. and U.K. forces also sought to repel the attack. A U.S. defense official said its forces in the region shot down Iranian-launched drones targeting Israel, while the U.K. Defense Ministry said it deployed Royal Air Force jets.

Iran will likely carefully monitor the Israeli and U.S. response to see how its technology competes with Western air systems and tactics, according to a former U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue. Iran could use those insights for future attacks, as well as share it with proxies to improve their effectiveness with Iranian weapons.


The most well-known of Israel’s air defenses is Iron Dome, which has shot down thousands of rockets since 2011 but is limited to a short range.

Israel also has a medium-to-long-range interceptor known as David’s Sling, plus the Arrow defense system, which is designed to intercept missiles fired from as far away as 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles). That range includes Iran, as well as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where militant groups allied with Iran are based.

The slow-moving drones are meant “to confuse the radar systems in Israel and then make sure that the missiles that would follow the drones would hit their intended targets,” avoiding the “major humiliation” of all its projectiles being shot down, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

(Annmarie Hordern and Ethan Bronner contributed to this report.)

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