Israel’s message to Iran

Mina Adel, Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Israel responded to Iran’s air strike against it last week with an attack on the Artesh Air Force Base in Isfahan, writes Mina Adel

Israel s message to Iran


On 17 April, the Iranian people celebrated Army Day, which showed off the country’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones that were used to attack Israel four days earlier. The day also demonstrated the air-defence systems that protect Iranian airspace, especially the elite S-300 and S-200 long-range systems and the similar domestic Mehrab system.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that “if even the smallest attack is carried out on our soil by the Israelis, it will be met with a massive and severe response.”

“Our army is skilled and trained,” and the 13 April attack on Israel had“announced to the entire world, to America and to the supporters of Israel, that Iran is in the arena and that our Armed Forces are prepared,” Raisi said, according to local media.

Two days after the Iranian parade, Western and Israeli media reported that Israeli aircraft in unspecified airspace outside Iran had fired at least three missiles targeting the Artesh Airbase near Isfahan. With no Israeli official comment, a senior US military source speaking to the US network Fox News said that “the Israelis hit what they intended to strike.”

Iranian state media and Iranian social media users suggested that Israel had targeted the Eighth Shekari Artesh Air Force Base. The open-source Umbra Space website published a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) photograph from 19 April showing evidence of damage to the Iranian S-300PMU2 strategic surface-to-air missile battery in Isfahan after 15 April. Other battery system components have been withdrawn from the site.

Artesh Commander Abdel-Rahim Mousavi and Artesh Ground Forces Commander Kiomars Heydari said that Iranian air defence systems had intercepted “suspicious aerial objects” that had caused the sounds of explosions over Isfahan.

According to a US defence intelligence agency report from 2019, Isfahan is well-protected with numerous air-defence systems. Since the Iranian attack on Israel, the Iranian military has also deployed new systems such as the Nebo radar system that is capable of detecting stealth planes and all types of missiles from great distances.

Babak Taghvaee, an aviation expert and the author of several books on the Iranian Air Force, and Mike Mihajlovic, an expert specialising in air defence systems, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the Israeli attacks.

Taghvaee said that the Eighth Shekari Artesh Air Force Base is home to Iran’s ageing fleet of US F-14 Tomcat fighters, which are the best in the Iranian Air Force, and also the location of a S-300PMU-2 system to protect the nuclear facility at Natanz. He said that Israel had wanted to show that it could conduct airstrikes at Iran without entering Iranian airspace, something that can be done via Rocks and Sparrow air-launched ballistic missiles and also Rampage air-to-surface missiles.

Mihajlovic said that he was sceptical about the attack on the Iranian battery. The damaged radar that the open-source photograph had shown could be a real one or a decoy, he said. The first thing that any analysis should look at is whether the battery was in on or off mode.The S-300 is a long-range air defence system, meaning that it has a blind spot for near defence and needs to be covered by short range systems. Air defence systems are organised by echelons, meaning that one long range system also covers others.

Regarding the use of Israeli ballistic missiles, Mihajlovic said they could be used in vertical attacks, which was what had happened when Russian Kinzhals missiles obliterated Ukrainian US-made Patriot missiles.

This had used the simple tactic of saturating the air with drones, decoys, and other means to distract air defence operators while simultaneously Kinzhals missiles were used to attack from above.

If the radar was attacked in this way, it could be destroyed, he said. Smaller drones assembled and launched by Israel against the base near Isfahan could approach the radar by flying just above the ground and then striking it. There is no chance that the S-300 system could detect them using this approach. The drones’operator was highly likely well trained and used the cover of trees, dunes, and any elevated terrain.

According to a US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) report, as part of the Israeli plan, a Syrian radar battalion from the 112th brigade of the 1st corps was attacked in Daraa 90 minutes before the Israeli attack on Iran. This radar can detect any Israeli aircraft passing through Jordanian airspace, potentially warning Iran of an impending threat.

The Israeli strike on Iran was identical to Israel’s usual tactics, as it included the implementation of secondary strikes to distract the opponent’s attention away from the direction of the main attack, which was why the Syrian air defence sites were attacked before the attack began, not only to neutralize them, but also to convince the Iranians that the strike would not be directed at them.

An attack was also carried out in Baghdad to further confuse the Iranians and make them think that the missiles were not fired in their direction. Simultaneously with the deceptive operation, an attack was carried out with quadcopter drones aimed at breaching Iranian air defences.

Israeli ballistic missiles of the Rocks and Sparrow family, as well as the Rampage, can be launched from fighter jets. They can hit targets from long distances and at supersonic speeds without risking the exposure of pilots and aircraft to air defence threats.

Israeli pilots have trained on the Hellenic S-300 Russian defence system in Greece, as well as other Russian systems such as the Buk and Tor in Cyprus, according to the Israeli media.Iran uses all these systems.

According to theNew York Times, the Israeli attack may now lead to an Iranian decision to better protect the country’s nuclear sites by upgrading its air defence systems and moving additional nuclear capabilities deeper underground, as well as by placing further restrictions over external monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Mihajlovic said that it is possible to resist Israeli attacks through the continuous relocation of air defence batteries, often in complete radio-electronic silence, and use decoys for every position to deceive Israeli attackers.

It would be hard for the Israelis to follow every battery or vehicle, he said, especially with radar imitators used to confuse Israeli radar and intelligence. The S-300 is a mobile system and can be located anywhere there is enough space to put the equipment.

Mihajlovic said that at least two long-range batteries should be used to cover each other (one on and the other off until the combat engagement), though this could be difficult to do with limited resources, he added.

Taghvaee said that he did not believe that Israel would repeat its strikes soon, but if Iran attacks Israel again, it will use more missiles and this time aim at oil refineries and other strategic locations such as nuclear sites.

Firing missiles from outside Iranian aerospace means that Iranian Air Force planes cannot defend its airports and air defences even with the expected deal to acquire Russian Su-35 fighter planes. The Iranian army cannot acquire new Russian systems like the very long range S-400 due to the Russian-Ukrainian war.

It seems that the Israeli strike on Iran has not satisfied all Israelis, as it was met with many objections from the most radical member of the country’s cabinet, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who branded the Israeli response “weak”.

The US announced that it did not directly participate in the Israeli attack, but one Iranian Twitter (X) account saw users posting photographs from an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)aircraft tracking site, indicating that many US Air Force and US Navy reconnaissance aircraft had flown outside Iranian territory, and these are capable of accurately detecting air defence sites.

It appears that both sides in the conflict have been satisfied with the outcome, though Israeli journalist Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli newspaperHaaretz that the latest round of attacks between Israel and Iran served to highlight Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of a comprehensive strategy.

While Israel is content with the outcome, the US and the Gulf States still fear a regional escalation and caution that the limited airstrike allows the regime in Tehran to pretend that nothing has happened.

The strike was a good way of ending a dangerous and unprecedented round of blows between Iran and Israel, but it leaves the balance of deterrence between the two countries unsettled and beset by questions.

It is likely that the Israeli government now intends to dedicate itself to the military operation in Rafah. It will not want to fight on two fronts, especially given the danger from Southern Lebanon, and as it completes field preparations it is trying to obtain US approval for the operation.

This raises further fears of negative impacts on the humanitarian situation, which has already become catastrophic in the Gaza Strip.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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