Iran directly moved against Israel over the weekend with a three-pronged saturation attack consisting of approximately 185 Shahed drones, 110 medium-range ballistic missiles, and 36 land-attack cruise missiles. The Iranian attack came after a weeklong telegraphed buildup of tensions triggered by the Israeli strike against the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this extensive preparation phase, Tehran’s hope for an overwhelming bombardment of Israeli targets appears to be largely foiled. The vast majority of incoming munitions were intercepted by a variety of layered air defense systems, with the only substantive impacts appearing to be on Ramon air base in the Negev, far to the south of the main body of the Israeli air defense network. Since the runways at Ramon were undoubtedly cleared by scrambling the aircraft long before the missiles arrived, it is unlikely any hits on grounded aircraft were scored. The Israel Defense Forces released footage of engineers already repairing the minor cratering done to the runway, underscoring the optics of the Iranian attack being rendered largely ineffective.

Regardless of whether the attack was launched for a performative or a strictly military purpose and setting aside the panoply of political, strategic, and other questions it raises, its immediate outcome should be viewed as clear evidence that integrated air and ground air defense systems can provide adequate coverage against saturation attacks—at least under certain conditions. Simply put, the old assumption that states could invest in plentiful and cheap ballistic and cruise missiles to provide a sort of “poor man’s air force” for power projection has shown to be wanting. Just as the 1990 Gulf War proved the massive superiority of modern precision weapons against massed armored formations, so has the Iranian attack shown that integrated air defense systems are not all hype. China’s leaders will be taking notes, just as they did in 1990. For attacks like this to succeed, far more preparation of the battlefield is required.

Iran launched this attack using the same assumptions as Saddam Hussein’s strategic bombing of Iranian population centers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War—a series of campaigns dubbed the “War of the Cities.” No radar jamming, suppression of enemy air defense, or interdiction of Israeli aircraft was attempted—only a massive, coordinated launch of three types of independently operating aerial munitions with marginal accuracy. This kind of unsophisticated attack would have been of limited effectiveness even forty years ago. Modern early warning networks and air defense systems have exposed its complete obsolescence. Nothing was tactically or strategically novel about the Iranian attack—even the one-way Shahed-136 “suicide drone” is functionally the same as a cruise missile, only cheaper. States that are concerned about similar attacks heading their way in the future—Taiwan, for example, although other states like Poland and Japan are also seeking to enhance their air defense capabilities, wary of the threat of Russia and China—may be tempted to pour their resources into a similar comprehensive air defense network as the Israelis have in the hopes of repeating this weekend’s performance. They should move with caution, because that performance comes with caveats, and the conditions characterizing their strategic situations are not identical.

Israel has three significant advantages over Iran that other states looking to bolster their air defense capabilities need to first consider. First, outside of the weeklong advance notice of Tehran’s attack, no other country in the world has been preparing for this exact sort of attack for the past twenty years like the Israelis have. The Israeli air defense system is the most sophisticated integrated air defense network on the planet. For the close fight, Israel relies on the short-range Iron Dome system (with many parts from this system being developed into the American Indirect Fire Protection Capability). At medium range, the Israelis have developed the David’s Sling, broadly similar to the Patriot. And the Arrow fulfills the long-range capabilities provided by THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system for the United States. In addition, Israel’s air force communicates with the ground-based air defense systems and provides airborne radar coverage, as well as fighter aircraft, to intercept drones and cruise missiles. While ballistic missiles cannot be intercepted by aircraft, slow and low-flying drones and cruise missiles are a turkey shoot

Second, even with Iranian proxies assisting in firing some rockets and drones, the vast majority of the incoming weapons had to fly a great distance (nearly nine hours of drone flight time) over hostile territory into the teeth of the Israeli, Jordanian, and US air forces and navies. Iran might have hoped that cheap drones would saturate and exhaust the limited ground-based air defense interceptors, opening the way for the most destructive ballistic and cruise missiles with larger payloads to strike home. This did not work. The tyranny of distance allowed the Iranian saturation attack to be whittled down steadily by the defenders’ air and naval assets, preventing the ground-based air defense systems from wasting valuable interceptors on chaff targets. The prerequisite for this understated but absolutely vital link in Israel’s air defense bubble is its unquestioned air and naval superiority over not only its own territory, but the entire Middle East courtesy of the US Air Force and Navy.

Finally, the air defense system’s performance relies heavily on the vast financial and materiel resources of the United States and its “ironclad” commitment to Israeli security. This is fortunate for the Israelis, as the financial burden of air defense research and development alone would be ruinous to most other states, to say nothing of the industrial cost of actually building and fielding these systems. US aid provides not only backing for the Israeli air defense network, but also backfills of interceptor missiles, frustrating any Iranian hope of quickly exhausting Israeli stockpiles. The total cost of this air defense operation alone will probably come to over $1.5 billion when all the expended interceptors, jet fuel, and missiles are tallied, an enormous sum equal to nearly 10 percent of Taiwan’s annual defense budget and 7 percent of Poland’s.

Few other countries will be able to recreate Israel’s air defense successes, as certainly as they cannot perfectly copy Israel’s geographic situation. It is imperative for states looking to modernize their systems to not to be blinded by the spectacular footage and attempt to replicate the Israeli model exactly. They should instead focus on strategies appropriate for their resourcing and geopolitical realities. In the meantime, China will undoubtably begin to adapt its plans with the lessons learned by the Iranians.

Peter Mitchell is an air defense professional, a strategic studies instructor at West Point, and Modern War Institute contributor. You can follow him on X @peternmitchell.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit