April 14, 2023 | Insight

Avoid Overconfidence When It Comes to Middle East Air and Missile Defense

April 14, 2023 | Insight

Avoid Overconfidence When It Comes to Middle East Air and Missile Defense

After months of rising tensions, terrorists fired at least 30 rockets from southern Lebanon into northern Israel last Thursday, 25 of which were shot down, presumably by Iron Dome. The rockets were allegedly launched by Hamas, which later attempted to fire an additional 44 rockets from Gaza into Israel. In response, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted airstrikes against Hamas targets in Lebanon and Gaza, which seems to have been carefully calculated to avoid precipitating a larger conflict with the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah. Another six rockets were fired from Syria into the Golan Heights on Saturday, prompting additional IDF retaliation. Thankfully, Israelis reportedly suffered only a handful of injuries from these rocket attacks. However, that fact should not lead to overconfidence regarding future attacks.

This latest barrage follows larger attacks on Israel from Palestinian terror groups in 2021 and 2022 and underscores the growing threat Iran’s terror proxies pose to Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners — and the need to work together to further expand air and missile defense (AMD) capability and capacity.

In May 2021, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and several smaller militant groups launched thousands of rockets at Israel in a conflict that lasted 11 days. During that conflict, Hamas fired around 4,360 rockets from Gaza toward Israel. In August 2022, Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired at least 1,100 rockets toward Israel.

While the terror groups seemingly hoped to kill large numbers of Israeli civilians, the attacks thankfully failed to achieve that objective. That is largely due to Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.

Iron Dome is an air defense system designed to intercept short-range rockets, mortars, and drones, which have become the weapons of choice for Iran’s terror proxies such as Hamas and PIJ. Iron Dome’s success rate has steadily improved, achieving 97 percent during the initial stages of the 2022 conflict with PIJ, according to the Israeli military.

Despite Iron Dome’s success in protecting civilians from rockets launched by terrorist groups, it would be unwise to become complacent or overconfident.

That’s because the missile, rocket, and drone threat to Israel is only expanding. And Israel, like the United States and its Arab partners, does not have sufficient AMD capacity.

While militant groups in Gaza have significant rocket arsenals, they pale in comparison to Hezbollah’s. The Iranian terror proxy possesses an estimated arsenal of at least 130,000 surface-to-surface rockets and missiles and 2,000 unmanned aerial vehicles. Most of Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles are similar to the rudimentary munitions fired from Gaza. Those “dumb” rockets sometimes veer into unpopulated areas, meaning Israel can allow them to fall harmlessly to the ground without wasting a valuable interceptor. But a small and growing number of Hezbollah’s munitions are precision-guided and thus far more accurate. That means Israel will want to intercept each one of them.

Israel has an insufficient number of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors to deal with this growing threat. According to a Congressional Research Service update last month, Israel has at least 10 Iron Dome batteries, each with three or four launchers carrying 20 missiles apiece. Even with interceptor resupply for these batteries and assuming Israel’s actual number of Iron Dome batteries is somewhat larger than public reports suggest, Israel lacks sufficient AMD capacity to keep pace with growing threats. A large-scale barrage of sufficient size and accuracy could overwhelm these defenses, enabling terrorist groups to inflict heavy casualties and destroy critical infrastructure in Israel. It is worth remembering that during the 2021 conflict, despite the success of Iron Dome, some rockets did get through and killed Israeli civilians.

A war with Hezbollah, perhaps coinciding with a larger conflict between Israel and Iran and potentially including attacks from Gaza as well, could stress Israel’s air and missile defenses to the breaking point.

That is why Israel is sprinting to strengthen its AMD capacity and capability, including through significant investments in directed energy. It is noteworthy and laudable that the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group has established a sub-working group specifically focused on directed energy as Israel continues development on the Iron Beam laser air defense system.

In the meantime, there are broader considerations worth identifying.

First, Israel is not alone in confronting these missile and drone threats from Iranian terror proxies. U.S. forces, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab partners confront these threats, too. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently testified that Iran-backed groups have attacked U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq 83 times since January 2021. The Tehran-backed Houthis in Yemen have launched hundreds of drone attacks at Saudi Arabia and even fired ballistic missiles at an airbase in the United Arab Emirates housing U.S. servicemembers.

Eyeing this common threat, the Biden administration should redouble efforts to build a combined security architecture in the Middle East that prioritizes air defense and includes the U.S. military, Gulf Cooperation Council partners, and eventually Israel.

Secondly, those sitting safely in the United States and Western Europe should cut Israel some slack when it comes to sending Iron Dome to Ukraine. Israel is surrounded by terrorist organizations with a propensity for launching rocket and missiles barrages every few months with the goal of killing large quantities of civilians. One should be able to understand why a country confronting such threats might be reluctant to reduce its means of self-defense.

Israel’s success in countering the recent rocket attacks might leave some with the impression that the missile, rocket, and drone threat from Tehran and its terror proxies is under control. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s time for Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners to prioritize and expedite combined efforts to respond to a threat that endangers each of them.

Ryan Brobst is a research analyst for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bradley Bowman serves as CMPP’s senior director. For more analysis from the authors and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Jihadism Lebanon Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy