Israeli Air Defense Capabilities and Limitations in The Next Major War

Due to frequent escalations between Israel and Gazan terror factions, the Israeli public has grown used to having active air defenses providing a high degree of effective protection against enemy projectiles attacks.

This expectation, however, will likely turn out to be highly misleading in the event of a Third Lebanon War with Hezbollah, whose arsenal of rockets, mortars, and missiles, estimated at some 250,000 warheads, is several times larger than that of Hamas in Gaza.

This unrealistic expectation of air defense protection will likely prove to be acutely misleading in a multi-arena war scenario, involving not just Lebanon, but also adversaries in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran itself (which possesses the Middle East’s largest surface to surface missile arsenal), and possibly the Gaza Strip (Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad).

In a Hebrew-language paper published in March 2023 by Brig. Gen. (Res.) Meir Finkel, head of research at the IDF’s Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, the potential price of a single arena Third Lebanon War that the Israeli home front could pay was spelled out.

Finkel assessed a number of parameters, including the possible number of casualties in Israeli home front, and the number of destroyed sites.

He noted that according to assessments that guided the IDF’s Chariots of Fire month-long war exercise, which was held in May 2022, on the ninth day of the simulated war, Israel suffered 80 destroyed sites in its home front. These refer to multi-story buildings hit by missiles with trapped people inside. Within nine days of the simulated war,  300 Israelis (civilians and soldiers) were ‘killed’ in both the home front and on the war front.

In light of the above, Finkel estimated that the final cost by the end of the war lasting a month to Israel’s home front would be 120 destruction zones, and thousands of additional partially damaged apartments. He assessed the overall number of 200 to 250 civilians killed in Israel as number that the Israeli public should expect (as well as between 600 to 800 fallen IDF soldiers on the front). I.e. the total number of Israeli deaths is estimated at around 1,000.

In Lebanon, Finkel estimated that the IDF would aim to kill some 3,000 Hezbollah operatives, and that a further 12,000 would be injured, with some 1,000 to 2,000 Lebanese civilians potentially dying in the conflict.

This would represent the elimination of a third of Hezbollah’s order of battle, estimated at 50,000 operatives (active duty and reserves).

However, the Israeli home front will be exposed to levels of firepower that it had never seen before, and the current level of public expectations regarding the effectiveness of air defenses appears to be unaligned with these assessments.  

Former IDF Home Front Commander Maj. Gen. Uri Gordin assessed in 2022 that Hezbollah can fire 4,000 projectiles a day at Israel, and that 10 rockets would explode in built up areas an hour in Israel’s North (compared to one rocket an hour that exploded in an Israeli city during Operation Guardian of the Walls against Hamas in 2021).

In 2021, Gordin estimated Hezbollah’s rate of fire to be 2,000 rockets a day, meaning that the estimate has since doubled.

Hezbollah would activate its massive arsenal from the start of a future war, but its rate of fire would likely decrease as the IDF destroys targets with standoff firepower, and a ground maneuver.

What does this mean in regard to Israeli air defenses?

The IDF official strategy published in 2015 by former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot stated that defending the civilian and military home fronts from projectile fire, alongside the protection of Israel’s continuous offensive capability will form the objectives of air defenses – but not in that order.

The priorities of air defenses will instead be ordered as follows:

Enabling the functionality of core military capabilities, including those in the home front (for example: air bases).

Defending vital national infrastructure and state institutions to ensure continuous state function.

Defending civilian population centers.

This order should also be communicated to the public, which is currently misled in its expectations by the high quality performance and protection afforded to it by Iron Dome during Gaza escalations.

During Operation Arrow and Shield, for example, from May 9 to 13 2023, Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired 1,469 rockets at Israel, of which 1,139 crossed into Israel (there were also 291 failed launches = 20% of all PIJ rockets).

Iron Dome intercepted more than 95% of rockets heading for built-up areas in Israel. David’s Sling intercepted two rockets, making its operational debut.

In a future war with Hezbollah, and certainly in a multi-arena conflict, there will be a substantial reduction in active protection afforded to civilians, due to the priority list described above and the saturation of air defenses by masses of mortars, rockets, missiles, and UAVs.  

While Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 2, and Arrow 3 will combine to form a powerful shield in line with the priorities listed above, it will be a highly partial defense.

Civilians will have to rely on alerts and safe rooms too, especially in the North.

In addition, citizens should expect power cuts, communications cut offs, bank problems, and further disruptions to daily life.

The addition of precision firepower capabilities by Hezbollah means even more of a strain on Israeli air defense systems.

What about laser defenses?

In the near future, Israeli laser air defenses should be coming online. Rafael’s Iron Beam laser cannons will be installed within Iron Dome batteries,  and with a 10-kilometer range, they will create new interception abilities, letting Israel destroy rockets within enemy air space.

A separate program being led by Elbit involves airborne drones that will be able to shoot down rockets and other threats from above with lasers. This will take longer to develop, but in the future, the skies of Lebanon and Gaza could be flooded with anti-rocket UAVs.

Iran, for its part is working on hypersonic missiles, which fly as fast as ballistic missiles but maneuver unpredictably like fighter jets.  Yet Iranian hypersonics are still in a trial period, and Rafael is working on a solution. Iran already has very large arsenal of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and UAVs that are operationally ready in its arsenal, though all of these threats have counter-measures in the form of Israeli active air defenses.

In other words, the Middle Eastern arms race is in full swing. Due to Israel’s technological innovations, time appears to be on its side when it comes to air defenses, but any full-scale war in the near future will still result in unprecedented damage to its home front.

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Yaakov Lappin

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