How Israel managed to intercept ’99 per cent’ of Iran’s drone and missile attack

How Israel managed to intercept ’99 per cent’ of Iran’s drone and missile attack
  • PublishedApril 16, 2024

Over five hours of missile and drone strikes on Saturday night, Iran launched an attack on Israel unlike anything the world has seen. 

The skies were alight, sirens blared and fighter jets roared as waves of strikes were launched towards Israeli territory.

But despite more than 300 munitions being fired in Iran’s unprecedented blitz, Israel says more than “99 per cent” were intercepted. 

The minimal damage was being attributed to Israel’s multi-layered defence systems and a “coalition” of allies that came together for the first time to counter Tehran’s attack.

Analysts say it’s unlikely any other country could have withstood such an onslaught, and the attack is a lesson in how to prepare for future conflicts. 

light streaks from rocket interception above a lit up horizon in israel
Israel’s air defence systems have been described as some of the most effective in the world. (Reuters: Amir Cohen)

Only one direct target hit

Last week, the US warned Tehran was planning a “significant attack” in response to several Iranian military leaders being killed at the start of April in an air strike – believed to have been launched by Israel – on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria.

And late on Saturday night, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel from its territory. 

The Israeli military said hundreds of drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles were fired by Iran. 

But the majority were intercepted while travelling the more than 1,770 km to Israel.

US officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation.

At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

A graphic showing the number of drones and missiles Israel says Iran launched towards the country.
Israeli military estimates of the number of drones and missiles launched during Iran’s weekend attack. (ABC News: Digital Graphics team)

Just a few missiles made it through defences and the only damage was reported at the Nevatim air force base in southern Israel’s Negev desert.

It was reported to be “lightly hit” and the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said the base was “still functioning”.

The only serious injury reported within Israel was a seven-year-old who was hurt by shrapnel.

Most of the attacks were launched from Iranian territory, but the Pentagon said US forces intercepted “dozens of missiles” and drones from Iraq, Syria and Yemen that were headed toward Israel.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon said it had fired two barrages of rockets at an Israeli military base in the annexed Golan Heights.

Iranian forces also operate in Syria and Iran is allied with militant groups in Iraq and Yemen.

How were the strikes intercepted?

Israel’s multi-layered air defence capabilities were readied for the attacks, and they managed to shoot down most of the projectiles with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan.

Israel’s air defences are made up of three key systems that the US has been helping to develop, providing $US3.4 billion ($5.2 billion) in funding since 2009. 

  • Iron Dome: Intercepts short-range surface-to-surface rockets (bottom layer)
  • David’s Sling: Intercepts short to medium, and medium to long range surface-to-surface missiles (middle layer)
  • Arrow-2 and 3: Intercepts medium to long range, and long-range missiles (upper layer)

Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), said Israel has the most sophisticated integrated air and missile defence systems in the world.

The US comes close, but it doesn’t have anything comparable to Israel’s Iron Dome, he said.

Director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) Moshe Patel told politico that 40 years of investment in Israel’s Star Wars missile defence program had paid off. 

“All of the defence systems proved themselves well,” he said.

Iron Dome

Israel’s Iron Dome has been described as one of the most effective air defence systems on the planet.

It was designed to respond to short-range threats from Gaza and southern Lebanon, and has intercepted thousands of rockets since it became operational in 2011.

Israel has 10 Iron Dome batteries deployed around the country.

They are equipped with a radar that detects rockets and uses a command-and-control system and its own interceptors to quickly thwart threats. 

It can provide city-sized coverage against rockets with ranges of between 4 and 70 kilometres, according to the Israel Defense Force (IDF). 

A graphic showing how the Iron Dome works.
Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system was developed to respond to threats from Gaza and southern Lebanon. (ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

David’s Sling

Developed with the US, David’s Sling is meant to intercept medium-range missiles, such as those possessed by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is designed to shoot down rockets fired from 100km to 200km away.

It was first successfully deployed in May 2023 during cross-border fighting with Gaza militants.

An air defence system firing a missile.
David’s Sling is designed to intercept aircraft, drones and cruise missiles.(Israel Missile Defense Organization)

The Arrow

The long-range Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 system, developed by Israel with an Iranian missile threat in mind, is designed to intercept ballistic missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere, using a detachable warhead that collides with the target.

On October 31, Israel’s military said it had used the Arrow aerial defence system for the first time since the October 7 outbreak of the war with Hamas to intercept a surface-to-surface missile in the Red Sea fired towards its territory.

Israel helped by how the attack unfolded 

Dr Davis says what was seen from Iran was “something entirely new”.

“Certainly this is one of the largest attacks we’ve seen involving ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and also drones,” he told the ABC.

He said the sophistication of Israel’s air defence systems played a major role in stopping the barrage from reaching targets, but how the attacked played out also gave them an advantage. 

Iran was expected to launch drones first — the slowest of the weapons — followed by the cruise missiles, then the ballistic missiles last.

This would have meant they were timed to reach Israel simultaneously and overwhelm air defence systems, Dr Davis said.

“What actually happened was that the Iranians launched the ballistic missiles quite early in the piece,” he said.

“And because they’re a lot faster, it allowed the US the UK, France, as well as the Israelis, to attack each component of that attack sequentially, rather than having to deal with it simultaneously.” 

He said it could be argued this was due to Iran’s “incompetence” but it seemed more likely to be a deliberate decision, to give Israel less justification to retaliate.

But if that was the strategy, it didn’t work.

On late Monday local time, the Israeli military said the attack “will be met with a response”.

Graphic of a Shahed 136 drone with its specifications.
Iran’s slow-moving Shahed-136 bomb-carrying drones, which have been frequently used by Russia in Ukraine, were spotted in the skies during the attack.(ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhause)

International coalition played a ‘crucial’ role

Israeli leaders credited a “strong fighting” international military coalition led by the US for its ability to thwart the Iranian attack.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” Rear Admiral Hagari said.

It is unknown which Middle Eastern countries were involved, but Jordan was named by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a video message posted to X on Sunday.

“Thanks to an international coordinated effort, which the UK participated in, almost all of these missiles were intercepted, saving lives not just in Israel but in neighbouring countries like Jordan as well,” Mr Sunak said. 

However, Jordan said its actions were in self defence.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television.

A fighter jet sits on a runway
An Israeli jet preps for action as forces defend Jerusalem from Iran’s attack.(Reuters: Israel Defense Forces)

President Joe Biden lauded American forces who helped Israel down “nearly all” of the drones and missiles fired by Iran.

The US, supported by US European Command destroyers, took out more than 80 one-way attack drones and at least six ballistic missiles aimed at Israel from Iran and Yemen, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Monday.

This included a ballistic missile on its launcher vehicle and seven unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) destroyed on the ground prior to their launch in areas controlled by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, CENTCOM said in a post on X.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement the US took out dozens of the attacks, but did not provide details on ships or aircraft involved in the operation that commanders had been preparing for over the past two weeks.

President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team sit around a table at the White House.
President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team in the White House Situation Room receiving an update on the attack on Israel. (The White House via AP)

Mr Sunak said British fighter jets had shot down “a number of drones”.

The UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) had deployed several jets to the region in response to Iranian threats. 

The drones were intercepted in Syrian and Iraqi airspace, but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not specify how many RAF Typhoons were airborne. 

Dr Davis said the international support in the attacks was “crucial”.

“The fact that Israel had UK, US, France there shooting down ballistic missiles as they were coming in, and shooting cruise missiles, really allowed the Israelis to concentrate on the slower cruise missiles and drones,” he said.

A lesson for future conflicts

Iran’s onslaught gives an indication of what can be expected of future warfare, where the battle space is flooded with large numbers of attack drones, Dr Davis said.

And countries need to start better preparing their defence systems. 

Iran reportedly used many of its one-way Shahed attack drones during the weekend strikes.

They are the same “kamikaze drones” Iran has supplied to Russia throughout its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

They have been used to exhaust Ukrainian air defences and hit infrastructure far from the front lines. 

“What we saw in the skies of Israel was ironically a fairly small attack compared to what could happen,” Dr Davis said.

“Particularly in a major power war, for example involving China, who have large numbers of drones.”

He said Australia was among the countries that should be taking note to start building integrated air defence missile systems. 

“It’s an area really Australia is completely lacking in and after the events of the weekend,” he said.

“I think the government should be lighting a fire under Defence to get them to move more swiftly on integrated air and missile defence.”


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