Israel's air defenses have greatly improved

As Israel shields itself from the possibility of Iranian retaliation following the assassination of a senior Iranian commander in Syria on April 1, it is crucial to examine the evolution of its multi-layered air defense systems since the last ballistic missile assault in 1991.

It is equally essential to consider the expansion and sophistication of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, which is notably more advanced than the Iraqi arsenal of the time.

On April 1, in an unofficial airstrike, Israel eliminated Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a Quds Force brigadier general in Iran’s influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, along with six other officers.

The meeting was taking place at the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, marking Zahedi as the highest-ranking Iranian military officer eliminated since the death of Qassem Soleimani by a US strike in Baghdad in January 2020.

Israel completes first “C-Dome” interceptions from Navy Sa’ar 6 corvettes. Credit: Rafael
Tehran has vowed revenge, interpreting the attack on the embassy as an attack on Iranian soil.

The president of the United States, Joden Biden, anticipates an Iranian attack against Israel in the near future, hoping that it will be direct and not through intermediaries. Experts agree that Iran could choose to respond by using its arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles, the largest in the Middle East with more than 3,000 units.

According to Israeli media, while an attack with cruise missiles or drones from Iran would take between two and nine hours to reach Israel, a ballistic missile would only need 12 minutes.

Furthermore, with previous attacks by Iranian proxies from Syria and Iraq using drones and cruise missiles, a direct attack would be a significant escalation, especially following Zahedi’s assassination and Tehran’s declarations of revenge.

Israel’s Defensive and Retaliatory Capability: From 1991 to Today

Israel's air defenses have greatly improved
David’s Honda Israeli Defense System

Since the last significant ballistic missile attack in 1991, Israel has markedly improved both its air defenses and counterattack capabilities. Iran’s missiles today exhibit superior accuracy, range and payload capacity than Iraqi missiles of that time.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein’s regime launched 43 Scud missiles in 18 attacks on major Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, over 39 days. The Israeli population, equipped with gas masks, feared that the missiles carried charges of poisonous gas, although Saddam ultimately did not use chemical weapons and caused the death of 13 Israeli citizens through conventional attacks.

At the time, the United States, concerned about a possible Israeli retaliation that could destabilize the Arab coalition formed to confront Iraq, rushed to deploy Patriot missiles to strengthen Israel’s air defense. However, early Patriot models proved largely ineffective against Iraqi Scuds. In contrast, current Patriot systems have proven their ability to intercept ballistic missiles, evidence of which has been seen in the Ukraine conflict.

On the other hand, the Arrow missile system, which in 1991 was still under development, now has the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 versions operational. The latter achieved a successful interception of a Houthi missile on November 9, in what was described as the world’s first battle fought in space.

Israel also has the David’s Sling medium-range defense system, which successfully intercepted rockets coming from Gaza in May 2023, and the renowned Iron Dome system, which is effective in intercepting rockets from Gaza and Lebanon.

Additionally, Israel’s ability to carry out missile attacks has also been strengthened since 1991. During the Gulf War, although Washington suggested that Israel use its Jericho ballistic missiles for retaliation against Iraq, they were unaware that, at the beginning of the conflict, The Israeli Jericos were not operational, leaving Israel without an immediate option for an unmanned attack on Baghdad.

The current Israeli arsenal: Expanded offensive and defensive capabilities

Israel's air defenses have greatly improved
An image of the test launch of Israel and the United States’ Arrow 3 missile defense system on July 28, 2019. (Ministry of Defense)

Today, the situation is radically different. Israel’s Jericho-3 missile, with an estimated range of 3,000 miles, puts the country in a position to respond to an Iranian ballistic missile attack effectively. Additionally, German-made Dolphin-class submarines operated by the Israeli Navy are equipped to launch cruise missiles, providing a vital second-strike capability.

In the event of an Iranian assault using ballistic missiles, many of the missiles will likely miss their targets due to advanced Israeli interceptor systems, which the missiles must evade or overcome. Although some will inevitably hit, success will depend on the volume and intensity of the attack launched by Tehran.

Furthermore, any massive attack by Iran is unlikely to be indiscriminate or to target primarily civilian areas, as was the case with Iraq. Iran has shown a more calculated strategy; in February, it simulated a missile attack against a replica of the Israeli Palmahim air base built in the Iranian desert.

Iranian state media noted that this specific base was chosen because it is the main site for Israel’s fifth-generation F-35 stealth aircraft. A month earlier, a conservative Iranian newspaper suggested that both Iran and its allies should focus on attacking Israeli air bases hosting F-35s.

Looking to the near future, it is clear that if Iran decides to carry out a direct attack against Israel, it will find itself facing some of the most advanced defensive and offensive technologies in the world, prepared to counter and respond to any aggression from its regional adversary.