The barrage of more than 300 armed drones and long-range missiles that Iran fired at Israel late on Saturday was met with an unparalleled defensive response.

Ninety-nine per cent of the projectiles were intercepted, according to the Israeli military, with only a handful of ballistic missiles landing in Israeli territory. These caused minimal damage to an air base in the south of the country, although a child was seriously injured, likely from falling shrapnel.

“The Iranian attack, as it was planned, was thwarted,” Daniel Hagari, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief spokesperson, said in the early hours of Sunday.

Iran launched its attack in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike in Damascus earlier this month that killed several Iranian commanders, the first time that it had targeted the Jewish state directly.

That Israel was able to intercept the attack and prevent any loss of life is a testament to its “multi-layered” system of missile defences that includes the much-vaunted Israeli Aerial Defense Array. The Arrow element of the array that is intended to physically intercept long-range projectiles was successfully deployed during the Iranian attack, according to Israeli military officials.

Israel was also aided by international partners including the US, UK and France, as well as Middle East allies that have not yet been named publicly. Two US aircraft and two destroyers were involved in intercepting the barrage, while jets from the Royal Air Force were also scrambled.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunday confirmed that RAF pilots shot down a number of Iranian attack drones and helped save lives “not just in Israel, but in neighbouring countries such as Jordan as well”. He said that had the attack been successful, “the fallout for regional stability would be hard to overstate”.

In Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy highlighted the devastating impact of Iranian drones, such as Shaheds, which Russia is using in its war in Ukraine. 

“The sound of ‘Shahed’ drones, a tool of terror, is the same in the skies over the Middle East and Europe. This sound must serve as a wake-up call to the free world,” he said.

Hagari called the response to the Iranian attack “one of the most unique air defence battles” in the history of military warfare, alluding to the sheer number of fighter jets and missile interceptors deployed to stop an attack that unfolded over several hours.

Graphic detailing the defense of Israel during massive drone and rocket strike

The defensive effort began with early radar warning from forward bases near Iran operated by the US military’s Central Command. These detected the initial swarm of outgoing unmanned aerial vehicles and then later ballistic and cruise missiles fired from Iran, Iraq and Yemen.

Israel officially joined the US-led regional military command in 2021, in the wake of the Abraham Accords treaties signed with several Arab states. Since then the IDF has taken part in yearly war games, with an emphasis on aerial defence, as part of a burgeoning network dubbed the Middle East Air Defense Alliance.

After receiving the warnings, western fighter jets and air defences were deployed to intercept the wave of Iranian missiles and drones heading towards Israel over several Middle Eastern countries. Israeli F-35 stealth fighters already in the air strayed beyond the borders of the Jewish state to interdict the bulk of the incoming projectiles.

None of the 170 armed drones launched by Iran penetrated Israeli airspace, according to Israeli military data. The IDF also said that 25 out of the 30 cruise missiles heading its way were shot down by Israeli jets outside the country’s borders.

Those missiles and drones that did get through the initial interception stage had to contend with the widespread and deliberate jamming of the GPS signal, not just over Israel but neighbouring states.

As well as Arrow, the Israeli Aerial Defense Array also includes the Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems that are intended to physically intercept short- and medium-range projectiles respectively. But it was the Arrow that almost certainly dealt with most of the 120 ballistic missiles fired by Tehran.

The Arrow’s interceptors are meant to match and then intercept the high-altitude trajectory of ballistic missiles, striking them near space flight. This probably accounted for the widespread alerts that went off across southern, northern and central Israel, including Jerusalem, as well as the illumination of the night sky with countless streaking lights of Arrow interceptor missiles.

Of the “small number” of heavy projectiles that penetrated Israeli airspace, some struck the Nevatim air base in the southern Negev desert which remained fully operational.

But for Israeli officials, it was proof that, as one put it, a “strong defence coalition showed it can stand up to and create deterrence against Iran”.

Hagari noted that such a large number of ballistic missiles fired in short order was unprecedented in the annals of warfare, with Israel viewing it as “an escalatory factor” in the long history of conflict between the two countries.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had vowed to strike back at Iran directly if it attacked. Most Israeli analysts now deem such a response only a matter of time.

Yaakov Lappin, an Israel-based defence analyst, said the attack was a “resounding strategic failure for Iran,” and a “collapse of a central tenet of its [its] power projection — its conventional missile and UAV arsenals”.

“Iran must now await Israel’s retaliation, but unlike Israel, Iranian air defences are by comparison limited . . . . a response against Iranian soil looks like a certainty.”

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London and Christopher Miller in Kyiv

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