The kind of wide-ranging political-military synchronisation on display last Sunday will not be as straightforward to achieve elsewhere. (EPA-EFE/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH)


Western tech may have beaten Iran’s air attack, but greater challenges are to come


It was the largest combined drone and missile attack in world history. On Sunday Iran launched a huge air strike package of roughly 320 munitions against Israel, consisting of some 170 drones, 120 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles.

It was twice as big as the biggest single Russian air raid against Ukraine, which occurred in December 2023 and comprised 158 missiles and drones. The ballistic missile element of Sunday’s attack alone constituted the largest salvo of these massive weapons ever recorded.

The prompt, accurate and effectively complete annihilation of this entire threat by joint allied action represents an extraordinary demonstration of Western military-technological prowess in every sense. The full magnitude of this achievement is difficult to comprehend. Orchestrating such a complex multi-domain defensive operation, across so many different allied forces using an array of different types of sensors, platforms and interceptors, against such a multi-layered threat coming from multiple directions, has now set a new benchmark for 21st-century battle management and warfighting at the high-end of the scale.

This crushing success was not only the result of exquisite Western technology working as intended – even when used for the first time in combat, like the American SM-3 missiles for exo-atmospheric (i.e. in outer space) ballistic intercept – but also of the exceptional military skills, training and all-round professionalism of allied Israeli, US, UK and even French and Jordanian armed forces.

The previous benchmark for allied high-tech warfighting – but in an offensive rather than a defensive operation – had been set six years previously, and also in the Middle East. It was the space-enabled precision missile strike in Syria on 14 April 2018, in retaliation for the Syrian government forces’ use of chemical weapons in Douma.

That allied strike in Syria involved 105 Western missiles of five different types, against three different target areas, involving sea, air and subsea launches from positions dispersed geographically across three different seas, by ships and planes of the UK, US and French armed forces. It was an extremely complex airstrike mission plan, executed to perfection with almost all the missiles arriving on target at the same time despite their widely varied launch conditions and flight profiles. The US Air Force Secretary at the time, Heather Wilson, called it “the most precise strike in the history of man”.

Key to the precision was the ability of US forces to optimize the GPS constellation, where some satellites are moved into certain orbits to minimise errors across the system. This is important because the accuracy of the weapons directly influences the number of weapons deployed and the size of their warheads. A single missile with a smaller warhead can be used if the planners are certain it can strike exactly where it is targeted.

Iran’s attack on Sunday, for all of its size and complexity, and the challenges it posed to allied defence, was much less sophisticated in comparison with the 2018 US-led Syria strike. The Iranian Shahed-136 drones used on Sunday fly low and slow, some ballistic missiles crashed during flight, while Iran’s rudimentary space capability completely lacks any positioning and navigation components.

All this would amply justify a feeling of confidence and reassurance in Western ranks about our military edge. We now have up-to-date palpable, combat-proven evidence of what theory, technical tests, simulations and live exercises have long claimed: that the West is unmatched on both defence and offence in high-tech warfighting.

It is a fair view as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go very far, because such readings of the question of military advantage tend to be rather selective. Therefore, they can mislead us into embracing false assumptions about the extent of our capabilities. So let’s look at some of the other factors that work to balance out the rosy picture.

Firstly, the Sunday action was a set-piece event. Iran had telegraphed its intention to attack some ten days in advance. The allied defenders had ample time to plan, prepare and get their own assets into position. They also had the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance advantage, particularly at the tactical-operational level, ensured by US and allied space power. This was compounded by access to radar and other sensor data collected from Jordanian and Saudi territory (plus from US bases in Iraq and Syria) all along Iran’s attack route.

Then, the distances involved also worked to make this an ideal defence scenario by giving the defence significant time to track the incoming targets after launch and engage them, certainly as regards the Shahed drones.

The defensive mission was also helped – to say the least – by the geography of the battlespace and allied basing in the area. From the British base in Cyprus to the network of US bases in the Gulf (especially in Qatar but also beyond), and even to the French assets deployed in Jordan, plus Israel’s coastal location that enables sea-based fire support deep inland, the allies were perfectly positioned to absorb the Iranian strike and make use of strategic depth. All these rather ideal conditions might not be available at all, or only in part, in other scenarios against other adversaries and in other parts of the world.

But more importantly, two other key factors are unlikely to be quite so easily brought into play in the allies’ favour in the future, even in the Middle East.

The first issue is the sheer cost of this kind of defensive operation. The costs to Israel alone, based just on the value of the interceptor missiles fired on Sunday, are estimated to be over $1 billion. Meanwhile, the US Navy Secretary has admitted that America has also spent over $1 billion combined on “missile duels” with the Houthis (since October) and on defending against last Sunday’s operation. High-tech air defence may produce impressive results but it is highly expensive, to the point where the cost itself becomes a strategic constraint.

The second factor that will be hard to replay in the Middle East is the wide political alignment on the defence’s side – not just between the Western allies themselves (including Israel), but also with local partners like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The circumstances in this particular case were quite unique and tied in with a widely shared concern about managing regional escalation risk. Iran was compelled to respond to Israel’s earlier strike on its consulate in Syria, but no one wanted a full descent into war.

Calculations will be different in other theatres. For example, there are now calls for similar US-led air defence protection to be extended to Ukraine – but of course, in that case, the allies would be facing a nuclear-armed and much more capable Russia. Meanwhile, in the Indo-Pacific, exactly how close allies like Japan would respond to various potential Chinese actions against Taiwan remains an open question.

The kind of wide-ranging political-military synchronisation on display last Sunday will not be as straightforward to achieve elsewhere, and this could severely impact planning and operations in such contingencies.

The broader “negative reading” from Iran’s attack is that this kind of threat of mass-wave standoff/uncrewed and even autonomous weapons strike will only evolve. It will certainly become a more regular occurrence in warfare. And it will increase in scale and sophistication as even the most advanced technology proliferates faster and more widely. We’re only at the beginning of this new chapter in military affairs.

The Western alliance has powerful new technologies in the pipeline that can keep it ahead in this race, from anti-drone laser weapons like Dragonfire (that can help solve the cost challenge in countering drone waves) to new, more affordable hypersonic missiles like the Mako, or cutting-edge stealth aviation like the B-21 that open the way to future hypersonic and space-based bombers. These are grounds for strong optimism.

But our adversaries have also studied the allied response and learned much about our capabilities and techniques. The measure-countermeasure game will continue, and it’s not guaranteed to go our way by default; it must be played with the intent and resources to win.

The costs, favourable geography, early warning, political support and experimental nature of the enemy’s attack (Iran’s first-ever on this level) that we saw playing out in this case are not likely to be repeated in the same way. The defensive mission in such scenarios, therefore, will never again be as “easy” as it was last Sunday. We must not rest on our missile defence laurels, but assume the worst – and prepare for it.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at the Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C. You can subscribe to his weekly newsletter, Signal Power, here.