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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How Much Damage Could Iran’s Missiles Do to Israel in a War?

F-35I Adir from Israel. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to heat up, regional actors, especially Iran, have threatened to intervene. Through its own statements and the actions of its proxies, the Islamic Republic is trying to degrade Israeli government support for an extended operation in Gaza and dissuade the United States from providing further material aid. 

Tensions continue to escalate thanks to Hezbollah attacks into northern Israel and through strikes on U.S. positions in Syria. Should a regional conflict erupt, geography would limit Iran’s provision of material support to its allies and its own ability to carry out missile attacks against Israel. 

But how much damage could Iran’s missiles do to Israel in a war? 

Iran’s Missile Arsenal

The Iranian missile arsenal is relatively impressive given the country’s small, depressed economy. According to CSIS, Iran has the “largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, some capable of striking as far as Israel and southeast Europe.” 

Many of these are short-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 300 to 1,000 kilometers, unable to reach Israel. But Iran has enough medium-range ballistic missiles and land attack cruise missiles with ranges up to 2,000 km to pose a real threat to the Jewish state. 

During the Iran-Iraq war, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began to acquire and deploy Scud missiles to counter Iraqi Scud attacks. While at war with its neighbor, Iran developed relationships with several countries, most notably North Korea, to continue missile development. In the 1990s, the DPRK helped develop the missile that Iran called the Shahab-3, a nuclear-capable missile that set the foundation for several modern Iranian designs. 

Today, Iran holds at least four missiles capable of reaching Israel — the Sejjil-2, Khorramshahr, Ghadr-h, and Emad. It exports a number of its shorter-ranged missiles to proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The Houthis in Yemen have already tried to attack Israel, likely with Iranian equipment. All this amounts to many missiles pointed at Israel, which has several powerful defensive weapons to counter the threat. 

Introducing Israel’s Iron Dome

The best defense Israel has against missiles is the Iron Dome system, which entered service in 2007. Like other air defense systems, it has several distinct parts: a detection and tracking unit, a battle management and weapon control system, and a missile firing unit. 

Since its introduction, Iron Dome batteries have seen widespread success against Qassam rockets fired out of Gaza by Hamas. While Iron Dome can defend Israel against nearby threats from Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria, it is less useful against ballistic missiles fired from Iran. For that, Israel uses the Arrow system. 

Development on the Arrow actually pre-dates the Iron Dome, beginning in 1986. The Israel Defense Forces wanted to replace the U.S.-made Patriot system with one better at targeting ballistic missiles. After a long period of development, Arrow deployed in 2000. Yesterday, it shot down a missile launched by Houthi rebels, marking its first successful interception of a ground-to-ground weapon. This success suggests it is a match for Iran’s arsenal of missiles. The danger may come if it is overwhelmed by a large barrage. 

Key Offensive Capabilities

As the often-quoted line goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The high cost of Israel’s missile defense system, paired with the size of Iran’s arsenal, means Israel’s best chance at countering the threat may be strikes into Iran. While Israel doesn’t have a major missile arsenal of its own, it has conducted successful air raids on neighbors before, such as the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. 

Several factors would complicate such a move by Israel, most notably the distance their aircraft would have to traverse. It is 1,100 miles from Israel to the border with Iran over the airspaces of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, none of which would be thrilled by the prospect of an Israeli strike mission crossing their territories. Additionally, any conflict between Iran and Israel would see Iranian forces on high alert.

The mission into Iraq succeeded because it was nearly covert. Modern radar coverage and the need to attack multiple missile sites would make such a mission difficult today. Should Israel feel the need to strike into Iran, they may call on their allies, specifically the U.S., to do so. Aircraft launching from carriers in the Persian Gulf would be far better positioned to take out Iranian missiles than those coming from Israel. The geopolitical implications of such an action, however, would be incredibly profound. 

Worst Case Scenario?

Should the worst come to pass and Iran becomes actively involved in the conflict, there is potential for great suffering. While Israel does have a sophisticated missile defense system, it could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and may find it hard to respond. 

Ultimately, if Israel is threatened and attacked enough, it might employ the ultimate trump card — nuclear weapons — against Iran. 

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

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Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.