SPOTREP: The first ever direct Iranian air attack against Israel – by Emilio Palmieri

Over the night of April 13, 2024, Iran launched a coordinated air attack against Israel by employing more than 300 armed UAV and dozens of missiles. The Israeli air defense architecture was able to effectively repulse the attempt.

During the night of April 18 and 19, Israel hit back in a light retaliatory manner by dispatching armed drones – or possibly thru air strikes – that were intended to hit sensitive locations (allegedly, 2016 Russian-provided S-300 surface-to-air defense system) close to a nuclear site in the vicinity of the city of Isfahan. The Islamic regime promptly stated that it was able to counter the interdiction by shooting the drones down, while no comment was released in connection with the possible employment of Israeli ballistic missiles, as information leaked in the social media space reportedly confirmed.

Even though the Iranian air attack operation has been widely judged more as a pre-alerted show of force on the part of Iran than a decisive action, the episode still possesses a few attributes worth being deep-dived when comparing the capabilities of the two countries. 

What we know

First off, the strikes can be assessed as the first attack ever carried out by Iran against the territorial integrity of Israel. Which is something that has never happened so far. The significant event, then, could be interpreted when considering the following:

  • it is an instance of State vs. State confrontation, which – when talking about Iran – is quite unique in its application, given its attitude to employ either proxies on its behalf or cyber assets in order to assure plausible deniability. As a matter of fact, it can be peacefully affirmed that the event is the first instance of an Iranian direct State-related military offensive operation after the Iran-Iraq war that occurred during the ‘80s of the XX Century;
  • even if the attack can be seen as a muscular manifestation by Iran, as the regime rhetoric has portrayed it, it seems that the bellicose intent was kind of telegraphed to the USoA and other European and Arab state interlocutors, adding that the strike would be relatively limited in its scope; 
  • news disseminated in the info-space have reported that the Israeli air superiority was assisted by other State-related defensive air interdiction operations, not only executed by some “usual” players – in this case France and the USoA – but, allegedly, also by Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, acting out of an invitation by the Biden administration and in an anti-Iran posture;
  • Israeli HUMINT assets and ISR platforms are solid and capable of producing timely actionable intelligence, that further the Find-Fix-Finish targeting process with a relevant Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) – usually High Value Targets (critical facilities, like the attack on Iran’s Damascus embassy compound) or Individuals (over the past six months, more than 18 IRGC Qods Force members have been killed); Iran, on the other hand, has still to demonstrate the same quality in terms of intelligence collection assets and sophisticated analysis and processing competencies which set the conditions for planning and executing effect-based operations while achieving significant BDA; by applying the logic of effect-based air operations, while Israel has once again showed the “doctrinal” setting of generating effects by neutralizing key individuals or degrading the air defense systems in light of a future application of force (like the retaliatory strikes), the tactical impacts sought by Iran through the massing of drones and missiles referred to indiscriminately terrorize the Israeli population.

What we don’t know

It is too early to fully appreciate the scope and goal of the events. At a first glance, the April 13 event seem to be fostering the image of an invincible Israel, capable of directly and collectively punishing the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, while being in condition to muscularly and directly deal with Iran and also its regional proxies, like Hizballah or the Shite-inclined Syrian, Iraqi or Yemeni militias, the latter capable of keeping the world hostage of their maritime disruption operations. In realty, there is a number of unknowns that the simplistic conclusion cannot explain, requiring that it be additionally pondered against other effects that the Iranian strikes – and the Israeli reply – have caused:

  • in terms of costs analysis, Israel, in reacting to the aggression, spent more than a billion dollars to interdict the drone flotilla, which, in turn, costed a few hundred thousand dollars to Iran: this is another asymmetry that is being used by weaker opponents to financially wear down or degrade the richer enemy. So, with this regard, what are the consequences of a prolonged asymmetric campaign waged by Iran in light of its capacity to massively sustain drones production;
  • with this regard though, it is common knowledge that the Iranians learned a lot from the combined military operations they conducted with the Russians in Syria, including how to execute complex ground campaigns and how to integrate air support with ground troops by employing a combined maneuver-styled attack along with other capabilities, in order to create a dilemma into the enemy decision-making mechanism by catching it by surprise and off-balance : so, why Iran violated a core principle of military operations, the element of surprise, by telegraphing its intentions to Washington and several Arab and European capitals.

What we think

A few considerations can be hatched around the Iranian strikes:

  • there are elements of 5th Generation Warfare[1] that have been applied by Iran, in that the attack – even if almost totally ineffective – has been celebrated as the first instance of a State that has dared to challenge the territorial integrity of the archenemy, in so doing reinforcing the perception of the open leadership role that Shite regime is playing in spearheading the militant Islamic posture against Israel;
  • the strikes have shown the application, on the part of Iran as a State, of the principal of swarming, which refers to the mass employment of kinetic resources – in this case armed UAV – to saturate the determined target. The first study that structurally fleshed out the principal was authored by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in the publication “Swarming and the future of war” published in 2000. In sum, it was postulated that deployment of a relevant number of small, dispersed, networked maneuver units – in the Iranian case, armed UAVs – would magnify the effects achieved against the designated target;
  • while it is still unclear how the situation will be evolving and despite the fact that even Israel in the retaliation reply was not committed to delivering a sound punishment to Iran, the latter might have acted with its first ever aggression in order to possibly test, collect and process Israel response capabilities;
  • politically-wise, the strikes have once again bolstered the weird alliance made up by Sunni Palestinians scattered over the region – along with the larger outraged Sunni population living in Eurasia (firstly in Turkey) and North Africa – and the Shite State against the common enemy (the Near Satan of the old Qaedist rhetoric) that the onset of the reaction to the October 7, 2023 attacks set off: if this is true, as it appears to be, Iran will likely be continuing to employ a more adaptable, flexible, asymmetrical and deniable indirect approach thru proxies in order to harass and provoke Israel in a manner that its implementation will not entail a direct, symmetrical – and then too dangerous/costly – confrontation. 

[1]Doctrinally, the traits of warfare have been subsumed in 5 generations: the 1st refers to ancient and post-classical battles fought with massed manpower, using phalanx, line, and column tactics with uniformed soldiers governed by the state; the 2nd refers to industrial warfare, evolving after the invention of the rifled musket and breech-loading weapons and continuing through the development of the machine gun and indirect fire; 3rd focuses on using late modern technology-derived tactics of leveraging speed, stealth, and surprise to bypass the enemy’s lines and collapse their forces from the rear (combined arms maneuver operations); the 4th is characterized by a post-modern return to decentralized forms of warfare, blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants, and civilians due to states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces; the 5th is conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, such as social engineering, misinformation, and cyberattacks, along with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and fully autonomous systems: it is a war of “information and perception”.