Lessons from Iran’s attack on Israel

Lessons from Iran’s attack on Israel

The barrage of some 300 missiles and kamikaze-drones fired by Iran at Israel on April 13 opens a dangerous new phase in Tehran’s war against the free world – a phase that promises to be characterized by additional retaliatory strikes pushing the two further up the escalation ladder. It also highlights a number of lessons America, Israel and the rest of the free world must heed in their struggle against Iran and the rest of the axis of autocracy.

Missile defense is not a luxury but a necessity. The old arguments against missile defense – that missile defense is too costly, too impractical, too far-fetched, too unreliable – have been exposed as empty and wrong. Missile defenses are an essential element of national security and indeed the security of the free world. This is underscored not only by the shield formed around Israel on April 13, but also by decades of operational success.

In 2014, Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepted 735 inbound threats and registered a kill rate of nearly 90%. Even in the face of Hamas’s saturation attacks in late 2023 – when thousands of rockets were fired per day – the Iron Dome continued to shield Israeli cities and citizens. Israel’s David’s Sling system deflected medium-range rockets fired from Gaza during Hamas’ 2023 siege. Israeli Patriot batteries have intercepted longer-range Houthi missiles. Designed to engage threats in the upper atmosphere and space, Israel’s Arrow-2 intercepted a Syrian missile in 2017, and Israel’s Arrow-3 scored its first operational intercept in late 2023. The Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 systems deflected several Iranian missiles April 13.

In 2003, U.S. Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 batteries intercepted Iraqi missiles targeting the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait. The C-RAM anti-rocket system defended U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan an estimated 2,500 times. C-RAM batteries also engaged rockets targeting Kabul Airport in 2021. In 2016, USS Mason knocked down Houthi cruise missiles. In 2023, USS Carney intercepted Houthi missiles targeting Israel. In 2023 and 2024, Patriot batteries shielded U.S. troops in Iraq from rocket attacks. And as detailed below, U.S. missile-defense warships intercepted Iranian missiles April 13.

CSIS reports that Ukraine’s missile defenses have intercepted more than 70% of Russia’s cruise missiles and kamikaze-drones, along with nearly 80% of Russia’s ballistic missiles.

In 2022, a THAAD battery in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intercepted Houthi missiles and drones targeting facilities near Al-Dhafra Air Base, where U.S. forces are deployed. Saudi Arabia’s Patriot batteries have intercepted 90% of Houthi missiles and drones launched from Yemen. All told, the Patriot system has tallied intercepts over Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait and the UAE.

Allies and partners are essential. Israel has constructed the world’s most advanced and integrated missile-defense system. Yet as formidable as it is, it could not have deflected the Iranian barrage without allied help. As The Wall Street Journal reports, military assets from at least eight countries were involved in intercepting Iran’s missiles.

U.S., Israeli, Jordanian, British and French fighter jets, U.S. warships, and U.S., Israeli and Saudi ground-based assets deflected Iranian missiles and drones across a swath territory stretching from the Mediterranean through Israel, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, and into the Arabian Peninsula. This ad hoc coalition intercepted a stunning 99% of Iran’s salvo during what Israel aptly called Operation Iron Shield. Plus, none of Iran’s 170 kamikaze-drones and none of Iran’s 30 cruise missiles even made it into Israeli airspace, according to the IDF.

What’s true of Israel in its dangerous neighborhood is equally true for the United States in an increasingly dangerous world: Allies and partners are essential elements of America’s security. As Gen. James Mattis puts it, “The strength of our nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances … While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances.”

The problem with Iran is the very nature of the regime. Some argue that Iran was measured in its April 13 attack, but there’s nothing measured about firing 300 poorly guided rockets at civilian population centers 800 miles away. Iran’s April 13 attacks – unleashing 60 tons of explosives – are just the latest evidence that the Iranian regime is the problem.

Washington has spent much of the past 15 years trying to induce and incentivize Iran to behave like a normal country. In response, Iran has continued to train, fund and equip Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias in Iraq; continued to deploy soldiers into Syria and Iraq; continued its drive for nuclear weapons; continued to lock out IAEA inspectors; continued to harbor al-Qaida’s leader; continued to use its proxies to target and kill Americans; continued to attack international shipping in the Persian Gulf; and continued its proxy war on Israel, which culminated in the beastly assault of Oct. 7.

The problem here is not how the free world treats Iran. The problem is Iran’s terrorist tyranny. There’s really nothing like the regime in Iran. Yes, other regimes challenge the global order and make common cause with terrorists. But the men who run Iran have normalized terrorism into a basic government function, like building roads. Iran is not a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime.

The United States remains indispensable to the free world’s security. Days before the Iranian missile barrage, the U.S. intelligence community sounded the alarm that an attack was imminent, allowing Israel to prepare for the attack and enabling partner nations to reposition assets and coordinate their response. Gen. Michael Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), then rushed to Israel to huddle with Defense Minister of Israel Yoav Gallant and coordinate the allied response.

Importantly, much of the spadework for that coordinated response began years ago, when CENTCOM brought together military officials from Israel and multiple Arab countries for what were then secret talks aimed at planning for, preparing for and posturing assets for a large-scale Iranian missile assault. Even more significant, many of Israel’s missile-defense systems are the outgrowth of joint projects with the United States.

Finally, when Iran’s missiles and drones were in the air, U.S. military assets engaged those threats, forming the core of the shield. According to information shared with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, U.S. F-15Es shot down more than 80 kamikaze-drones targeting Israel, USS Carney and USS Arleigh Burke intercepted six Iranian ballistic missiles, and a U.S. Army Patriot battery in northern Iraq knocked down an Iranian ballistic missile.

Without America’s help, the shield protecting Israel – and the rest of the free world – wouldn’t be as wide or as strong. Israel – and the rest of the free world – will need America’s steady and sustained help in the dangerous days ahead.

There are limits to missile defense. Missile defenses have saved countless lives in Israel, Ukraine, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE and at sea. But the reality is that missile defense is more costly and, in a sense, more risky than taking actions to prevent the missiles from being launched in the first place.

Regarding costs: Using a $3 million interceptor to take down a million-dollar missile or $50,000 drone or $800 rocket is worth every penny for those in the crosshairs, but it’s still a costly proposition.

As to risks: Since last October, the United States, Israel, Britain, France and others have put personnel at risk and expended large amounts of resources scrambling to intercept threats launched by Iran and its proxies. More must be done to prevent those weapons from being delivered, assembled, deployed and fired. That enfolds diplomacy, intelligence sharing, tighter sanctions, interdiction and, on occasion, prelaunch military action. As my friend and colleague retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix counsels, it’s sometimes more effective to “shoot the archer, not the arrows.” Such left-of-launch action might translate into kinetic, cyber or electronic-warfare operations.

An ominous footnote to the stunning success of Operation Iron Shield is that Iran also is learning lessons, that Iran has thousands more missiles and drones in its arsenal, and that Iran continues its relentless drive toward the nuclear club. If Iran’s next barrage includes nuclear-tipped missiles, a 99% success rate won’t be nearly good enough.