Hudson Institute

Iran-Israel Update | Tehran’s Strike Was Not Symbolic, and It Can Happen Again

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
An Iranian citizen holds a placard in Tehran during a demonstration to support Iran's drone and missile attacks on Israel on April 15, 2024. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images)
An Iranian citizen holds a placard in Tehran during a demonstration to support Iran's drone and missile attacks on Israel on April 15, 2024. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situation report about the Iran-Israel Conflict.

Executive Summary

  • Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel was not merely a symbolic strike. Tehran’s use of Shahed-baseline loitering munitions was intended to saturate and distract Israeli air defenses in preparation for follow-on ballistic missile salvos.
  • Israel and its strategic partners’ air defense capabilities prevented Iran from inflicting serious damage.
  • While Israel’s air and missile defense engagements were an operational success, the Islamic Republic’s ability to launch large-scale salvos to bleed one of the United States’ most important allies in a critical region demonstrates a severe erosion of US deterrence in the Middle East.
  • Even with high interception rates, drone and missile warfare operations favor the offensive party. Unless Tehran faces an offensive deterrent, it will have more freedom to employ its disruptive military capabilities.

What Happened and Why Was It Important?

Overnight on April 13, Iran unleashed a barrage of drones and missiles in an aerial offensive targeting Israel. Dubbed Operation True Promise, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) executed the campaign, and Tehran claimed responsibility. The strike marked the first time the mullahs have dared to attack Israel from Iranian territory, suggesting the worrisome weakening of United States–led deterrence mechanisms in the Middle East.

The Political-Military Assessment of the Strike

Many analysts have suggested that Iran’s attack was merely symbolic, designed to save face but spare Israel from severe damage. This narrative is dangerously misleading.

The Islamic Republic did not unleash this salvo simply to keep up appearances. Open-source defense intelligence suggests that Tehran launched a large-scale, synchronized, and multifaceted strike package, employing loitering munitions, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. The strike unfolded along the same pattern that Russia has established in its joint drone and missile warfare efforts in Ukraine.

Iran designed its barrage of Shahed-136 loitering munitions to overwhelm Israeli defenses, setting the stage for a follow-on ballistic missile onslaught. Tehran launched its Shahed-136 loitering munitions hours before its arsenal of ballistic missiles. The staggered design of the assault caught many analysts off guard, leading to flawed assumptions that the Islamic Republic’s strike was solely a drone wave. Fortunately, Israel and its strategic partners’ air defense capabilities prevented severe casualties and destruction.

Despite Israel’s incredible interception rates in the air, drone and missile warfare carries an offense-dominant military-strategic calculus. Should Tehran opt to repeat this week’s effort, even a proportionally low penetration rate could favor Iran. Lessons learned in Ukraine confirm this bitter fact almost every week.

Given the inherent advantage of offense over defense in missile and drone warfare, Israel cannot achieve sustained success by relying on defensive weapon systems alone. Press sources suggest that Israel’s air and missile defense efforts on April 13 cost around $1.2 billion. More importantly, Tehran has reset the strategic reality in the Middle East: for the first time, the Revolutionary Guards’ long-range strike deterrent hit Israel directly from Iranian territory. If left unchecked, the Islamic Republic will likely reprise this strike at a time of its choosing.

Iran’s strike also carries dangerous implications for the future of the region. April 13 marked a serious failure of US-led deterrence structures in the Middle East. News stories, undenied by officials in the Biden administration, suggest that Washington has communicated with Tehran through back channels, negotiating about the scale and character of the attack rather than drawing clear red lines for its adversary. If confirmed, these back-channel negotiations would resonate poorly with longtime US regional partners, in particular the Gulf Arab states. These nations, seeing that the US did not prevent the strike on Israel, are likely to seek alternative defense arrangements. Beijing is no doubt keen to capitalize on the Biden administration’s weakness.

Finally, given Jordan’s efforts to assist Israel in intercepting Iranian projectiles, Amman will likely find itself in Tehran’s crosshairs. The Iran-led axis will likely intensify its efforts to destabilize the Jordanian monarchy in the months to come.

Defense Intelligence Assessment of the Iranian Attack

Iran’s salvo, featuring more than 300 projectiles and predominantly comprised of loitering munitions, triggered air-raid sirens across Israel from late Saturday to early Sunday. The Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s strategic partners spent the duration of the attack intercepting hostile munitions. The Iran-backed Houthi militia also participated in the campaign.

The principal offensive asset Iran employed in its strikes, the Shahed-136 loitering munitions baseline, is familiar to military analysts monitoring the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Shahed-136 has a range of 1,500 miles, can carry 110 pounds of destructive warheads, and possesses electronic warfare capabilities, which have improved based on the lessons from Ukraine. Iran intended to use the Shahed-136 as a battering ram to overwhelm Israel’s air defenses and open space for follow-on ballistic missile strikes.

Current intelligence cannot clearly identify the type of cruise missiles Tehran used in its salvo. Some experts’ early estimates suggested that the Paveh-351 was the most likely variant. Available visuals released by the Israeli Air Force have confirmed that Iran used the the Shahed-136 and Paveh-351 combination in the strike.

A Shahed-136 drone and Paveh-351 cruise missile intercepted by the Israeli Air Force.

According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Paveh-351 shares critical design elements, including the engine, rear fins, and booster, with the Houthi militia’s IRGC-transferred Quds-4 cruise missile. The primary difference between the Paveh-351 and the Quds is the Paveh’s folded wings, a critical modification for canister-launch configurations. Iran displayed several variants of the Paveh baseline during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Tehran in 2023. Months later, the IRGC showcased the missile during a parade in the Iranian capital, offering analysts more clues about the weapon system’s technical features.

In addition to loitering munitions and cruise missiles, Iran also employed ballistic missiles in a small but critical phase of the attack. Tehran designed this phase to inflict maximum damage to Israel’s critical military bases. Israel’s Arrow air and missile defense system, possibly alongside the US Navy’s missile defense systems, conducted multiple exoatmospheric interceptions.

Wreckage data digitally harvested from southern Israel showcased rocket engines suitable for liquid-propelled ballistic missiles. Initial assessments indicate that the wreckage was probably from the Emad, a capable Iranian liquid-fueled ballistic missile. The Emad, a modernized derivative of the Ghadr-1 variant of the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic baseline, possesses a range of some 1,120 miles. The missile is reportedly equipped with a separating multiple-entry vehicle to boost the accuracy and operational lethality of the weapon. It is plausible that other ballistic missiles, such as the Ghadr-1, took part in Tehran’s botched follow-on strike wave.

Liquid-propelled rocket motor remnants in southern Israel.

Battle Damage Assessment and Evaluation of the Intended Target Set

Israel and its partners’ air-defense success makes it difficult to identify Iran’s exact target set. But initial evidence suggests that the IRGC prioritized attacks on Israeli airbases, aiming to score asymmetric hits against Israel’s superior air force.

Iranian Press TV reported that Tehran aimed at the Nevatim Airbase, where Israel stations its F-35I Adir aircraft. On the morning of April 14, the Israel Defense Forces posted a video of F-35I operations at the Nevatim base, indicating that the critical facility remained operational despite Iranian missile strikes. Nonetheless, open-source imagery intelligence suggested that Iran had inflicted minor damage to at least one building at the airbase. The Israeli press noted that a C-130 transport aircraft and an unused runway also sustained minimal damage.

Images of impact craters at the base suggest that intercepted ballistic missiles—rather than a successful hit by a massive warhead—may have caused the damage. With its runways, major taxiways, support and command-control facilities, and hangars intact, the Nevatim Airbase is still operational.