Israel’s deterrence strategy collapsing

Mina Adel, Thursday 18 Apr 2024

This week’s Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel revealed the sophistication of Iran’s military capabilities and its ability to respond to Israeli attacks.

Israel s deterrence strategy collapsing


On 11 April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the media in front of an F-15 aircraft decorated with marks from Syrian aircraft at the Tel Nov Airbase.

The event was part of Israel’s long-standing deterrence strategy. According to the Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post, it was meant to “warn Israel’s enemies, including Iran,” that it will not hesitate to strike if provoked.

“Whoever harms us, we will harm them,” Netanyahu said on the occasion.

Meanwhile, Israeli commentator Chaim Levinson wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that “no cabinet minister will restore our sense of personal security. Every Iranian threat will make us tremble. Our international standing was dealt a beating. Our leadership’s weakness was revealed to the outside,” in a comment on Iran’s attack on Israel last week.

“For years we managed to fool them into thinking we were a strong country; in truth, we’re a shtetl with an air force, and that’s on the condition that it’s awakened in time.”

Two days after Netanyahu’s interview, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced the start of operation “True Promise” against Israel after approval from the Iranian National Security Council.

There were cyberattacks on the Israeli radar network, with the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah targeting anti-missile Iron Dome system locations in northern Palestine.

Following these, some 300 drones and missiles were launched from Iran against Israel, as well as from Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The missiles included 170 one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles (OWA UAV) and Shahid-136, Shahid-101, and the latest Shahid-238 missiles, which take six hours to reach their targets. Thirty Paveh cruise missiles were used, which take one hour to arrive, and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) of various models, including Emad, Dezful, and Ghadr, were also used, as well as the Kheiber Shekan missile, which needs only 10 to 15 minutes to reach its targets.

Air-defence expert Mike Mihajlovic wrote that “one of the interesting tactics during the first Iranian attack may be the synchronised attack, meaning that drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles arrive at the targets at the same time.”

“Drones were launched first, cruise missiles followed several hours later that were precisely timed to strike the targets at the same time as the drones arrived, and ballistic missile salvos were launched last to attack the targets from almost vertical trajectories. The sheer number of multilevel strikes can easily overload the Israeli air defences.”

Such complex tactics show Iran’s learning from the Russian-Ukrainian war and can be compared to Russia’s tactics in targeting the city of Odessa in July 2023.

Based on an exchange of experience with the Russians, the Iranian attack involved the use of swarm drones at low altitudes in order to confuse US-Israeli Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) by loitering in circles to drag defenders away from the flight paths of cruise missiles.

Such threats require fighter aircraft to fly at low altitudes to try to detect and intercept them within visual range, which limits the fighters’ situational awareness and allows the passage of some drones and missiles, which in turn will distract the attention of air-defence systems away from fast ballistic missiles.

Missiles such as the Emadand Ghadrwill most likely be intercepted, but there will be an opportunity for highly manoeuverable missiles, such as the Kheiber Shekan, to evade Israeli defences and reach their targets.

Nevertheless, according to the Israeli Occupation Forces up to 99 per cent of the missiles were intercepted, with only nine ballistic missiles getting through to strike the Nevatim and Ramon Airbases in the Negev Desert, resulting in only minor injuries and no casualties.

Through its mission at the UN in New York Iran then announced that its attack on Israel was over, perhaps meant to reassure the world and demonstrate Iran’s fear of regional escalation, confirming that its limited strikes were only a strong message to Israel.

According to the Israeli media, US and Israeli Intelligence had received information on the Iranian retaliatory attack roughly 24 hours before it began, allowing Israel and its allies to make moves to counter it, including the sending of a C-5 heavy cargo plane to Jordan carrying air-defence systems, along with three C-17 cargo planes carrying munitions arriving in Israel.

A C-40 aircraft from the US Navy was used to coordinate with the Israeli Air Force, nine KC-135 refuelling aircrafts arrived from Qatar, and later a squadron of US F-15 fighter aircraft arrived from the UK Lakenheath Base. A US naval destroyer relocated from near the port of Eilat in the Red Sea and two other destroyers of the same type relocated in the Mediterranean.

The defensive strategy included the use of the satellite surveillance system SBIRS to detect targets as complementary to early warning and electronic support aircraft E-3/Rc-135, which typically operate from Qatar.

The first forward defensive line was outside Israeli airspace in Jordan, with British Typhoon fighter jets arriving from the Akrotiri Base in Cyprus, and US F-15 E fighter jets from the 335th and 494th squadrons and Rafale aircraft from the French 4th Brigade being stationed at the Muwaffaq Badr Al-Salti Base in Jordan.

Advanced Patriot Pak-3 MSE air-defence batteries located near the Jordanian capital Amman were combined with the THAAD batteries that were recently sent to the Middle East.

The last defensive line included Israeli G550-Nahashon early warning aircraft with Israeli F-35, F15 Ra’am, F15 Baz and F16 Sufa/Barak fighters using Israeli Patriot air-defence systems. These efforts were augmented by US Navy destroyers USS Arleigh Burke and USS Carney in the Mediterranean, which managed to intercept missile with their SM-3 systems.

The strategy was successful at a cost of $1.1 to $1.3 billion, which covers only Israel’s costs and not the weapons used by the US and Israeli allies, according to Ynet news. This is no way comparable to the expense of the Iranian attack, which used a majority of older missiles and drones.

In a telephone call on Saturday night to Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden warned Israel to avoid counter-attacking Iran, saying that the US would not support or participate in any such operations.

“You got a win. Take the win,” Biden told Netanyahu, according to a White House official.

According to Australian commentator Mick Ryan, Israel now has several strategic options for how it might respond.

It might elect to not directly respond to Iran’s attack, which would possibly de-escalate the situation. It might respond with a proportionate attack against Iranian military targets in Iran. It might stage a proportionate regional response in a variation of the second option where Israel conducts a series of attacks against Iranian targets across the region but not within Iran itself.

Lastly, it might decide that a massive hammer blow against Iran is needed to re-establish deterrence. It could use the Iranian attack as a casus belli to attack Iran’s nuclear programmes directly.

However, Fabian Hoffmann of Oslo University writes that “Israel lacks aircraft numbers and supporting assets, does not have suitable anti-radiation ammunitions in significant numbers, and does not field an effective deep-strike arsenal,” all of which will make it difficult for it to attack Iran.

“The primary constraint for Israel in conducting a kinetic targeting of Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium production capabilities is its inability to execute effective air-defence destruction without US assistance.”

This shows Israel’s need of more F-35s and F-15EX aircraft designed specifically for such complex missions, and the US administration has tentatively approved such deals.

Israel aims to restore its prestige and consolidate the idea of its having an invincible air force that can strike any target in the world. The recent events may represent good news for the Palestinians, with the possibility of Israel postponing its invasion of Rafah in order to focus its attention on Iran.

Israel is now seeking vengeance and trying to restore its prestige and strategic deterrence in the Middle East. An unnamed US official told Axios that Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had told US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in a phone call on 15 April that Israel has “no choice” but to respond to the Iranian attack.

An unnamed Israeli official told the US network NBC News that Israel’s response may be “imminent” following an Israeli War Cabinet meeting on 15 April. The official added that any Israeli response would be coordinated with the United States.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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