The Iran-Israel Air Conflict, One Week In

On April 13, Iran launched a large salvo of missiles and drones at Israel. Designated “Operation True Promise,” the attack reportedly included around 170 drones, 120 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, and 30 cruise missiles. It came in retaliation to an Israeli airstrike on April 1 against an Iranian diplomatic base in Damascus, Syria, which killed seven officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the Quds Force’s General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. Iran’s attack marked the first time that Tehran has directly attacked Israel from Iranian territory.

On April 18, Israel responded in turn with airstrikes near Isfahan and Tabriz, Iran. Details on this attack are still coming in. Unconfirmed imagery suggests Israel struck at Iranian targets with some number of Sparrow air-launched ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders have claimed that their air defenses fended off the attack, which is unlikely but signals that they will not respond.

Q1: What missiles and drones did Iran use?

A1: Identifying missiles used in combat is hard. Identifying Iranian missiles, which come in a bewildering, visually similar number of derivatives and modifications, is even harder.

Iranian state-run media has claimed the use of the Emad and Kheibar Shekan-1 ballistic missiles, Paveh cruise missiles, and Shahed drones. Other reports mention possible use of the Ghadr ballistic missile. The drones employed are widely reported as Shahed-131 and -136 variants.

Brigadier General Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force, stated that Iran did not use its supposedly higher-end Khorramshahr, Sejjil, Kheibar Shekan-2, or Fatah ballistic missiles. The Washington Post has added that Iran did not appear to launch the Shahab-3.

Q2: Did Iran intend to limit Israeli casualties?

A2: Somewhat. U.S. and Iranian leaders reportedly engaged in back-channel conversations to discuss redlines and expectations over the past few weeks. Iranian leadership publicly warned about the forthcoming attack, and Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian claims to have given neighboring countries 72-hour notice before the attack. Once Operation True Promise commenced, incoming drones appeared on social media hours before reaching Israel.

To be sure, Iran’s decision to fire over 300 projectiles at Israel still suggests a high acceptance of risk for casualties, damage, and further escalation. Following reports of air defense success, one IRGC leader claimed that Iran used older and less sophisticated missiles in its attack. Perhaps this is why one U.S. official found that roughly 50 percent of Iran’s ballistic missiles failed on launch or in flight. However, it is difficult to validate Iran’s claim. It is doubtful that Iran held off using Khorramshahr missiles, for example, to avoid additional escalation risks.

Media reports have also exaggerated Iran’s intentions to limit casualties in the past. When Iran struck Al-Asad air base in Iraq in January 2020, for example, reports quickly established a misperception that Iran purposely avoided killing American service members. It took time before analysts noted that Iran did not “aim to miss” U.S. service members. Over 100 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injuries, with 80 troops awarded Purple Hearts. It is a miracle that Americans did not die.

Q3: How did Israeli air defenses perform against Iran’s attack?

A3: This episode represents an outstanding success story for air and missile defense. Despite the over 300 ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles launched, there appears to have been minimal damage to Israeli infrastructure and military assets, and the attack resulted in only one Israeli casualty.

It was also a joint effort. The coalition was led by the United States and featured the United Kingdom, France, and Jordan, in addition to Israel. Coordination took place at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which helped to prevent any friendly fire incidents. Although Saudi Arabia has denied direct involvement, the kingdom at least allowed U.S. aircraft stationed in the country to engage Iranian air threats. Israel’s Arab neighbors also may have contributed intelligence and sensor assets to detect and track Iranian air threats, although the extent of this cooperation remains unclear. U.S. policymakers have long advocated for an integrated missile defense in the region, and this joint operation helps illustrate why.

In an era of missile warfare, missile defenses have proven their worth. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, in Ukraine against Russia, and now in Israel against Iran. It was only a few years ago that analysts confidently claimed that defenses do not work. Yet in this operation, U.S. Central Command stated that it took down at least six ballistic missiles; the U.S. Navy employed SM-3 interceptors for the first time in combat, which were reportedly successful; and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of course employed its own air defenses. Air and missile defense works, saves lives, and reduces pressure on policymakers to respond immediately or excessively.

More will be revealed about the air and missile defense story in the coming weeks. An IDF spokesperson has claimed a 99 percent intercept rate. It is unclear if this figure includes Iranian missiles that failed at launch or in flight, or those that struck uninhabited areas. It is also unclear if Israel is identifying smaller surface-to-surface rockets as “ballistic missiles,” which fly farther and hit harder. In any case, even if the IDF eventually lowers this figure, coalition air and missile defenses clearly performed well in this operation.

Q4: What is known about Israel’s response?

A4: Most defense analysts correctly assessed that Israel would retaliate militarily. The question on everyone’s mind was the magnitude of the response. The Biden administration lobbied to minimize the strike to reduce further tit-for-tat attacks. If Israel’s attack was sufficiently limited, Iran may not respond, having dealt what it deems to be sufficient damage. That, at least, was the hope.

It increasingly appears that those hopes were actualized. Current reporting suggests Israel’s strike was limited and the IDF gave notice to U.S. policymakers before engaging Iran. The IRGC claims that its air defenses fended off the attack, which seems unlikely given Iranian capabilities but suggests that Iran will not respond.

Q5: What happens now?

A5: We’re back to a tenuous status quo. Iran has shown that attacks on diplomatic facilities—even those in Syria—will not be tolerated. Israel has shown that its air and missile defenses, when coordinated with the United States and regional partners, are extremely capable and that it will respond to Iranian attacks on Israeli territory. 

The Iran-Israel conflict also serves as a reminder that countries do not just stumble into war. Leaders climb onto the escalation ladder willingly and in turn generate dynamics that they cannot easily unmake. The question now is how the United States and others can unwind these dynamics for a more stable, peaceful security environment. Missile defense plays a critical role, but technology won’t save Israel from having to answer hard questions over its security strategy.

Looking forward, Israeli policymakers will face difficult trade-offs in managing their national security priorities. Hamas’s October 7 attacks inevitably pulled Israel into Gaza, but Israeli policymakers have chosen a maximalist approach that has pushed allies and partners away. These same relationships, particularly with the United States and Israel’s Arab neighbors, are especially important given their mutual aims in deterring and defeating Iranian aggression. Perhaps this week’s conflict—and the cooperation it prompted—may serve as a reminder of that common goal.

Shaan Shaikh is a fellow and the deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 

Shaan Shaikh
Deputy Director, Missile Defense Project and Fellow, International Security Program