Iran’s attack against Israel on April 14 was historic—it marked the first time that Iran has directly struck Israeli territory from its own soil despite decades of tensions and shadow conflict. Iran utilized around 170 drones in the operation, making it one of the largest drone attacks in history—possibly the largest. As such, the attack epitomizes the increasing reliance on remote, uninhabited systems in modern warfare.

Aerial drones and other types of uninhabited vehicles are undoubtedly key to the future of conflict, but Iran’s attack demonstrates that the current generation of these systems have crucial weaknesses that limit their effectiveness on the battlefield against sophisticated adversaries. In particular, drones are highly susceptible to air defense and thus often do not reach their intended targets. However, Iran’s large-scale use of drones against Israel also illustrates how the military deficiencies of these systems can be leveraged to achieve two higher-order, strategic political goals—limiting escalation and maintaining a strong reputation for resolve.

Defense Is Stronger Than You Might Think

The only thing more striking than the large quantity of drones Iran used in its attack against Israel was the number of those drones that were shot down by Israel and other countries. According to Israeli estimates, over 99 percent of all Iranian weapons used in the attack were intercepted before reaching their targets—including all 170 drones. In part, this reflects the sophistication of Israel’s air defense capabilities and the abilities of the many other countries that helped Israel destroy these drones. But it also highlights something broader—the generally high susceptibility of drones to air defense compared to more traditional inhabited aircraft.

There are at least three reasons uninhabited aircraft are typically easier to shoot down than their inhabited counterparts. First, current-generation drones tend to fly much slower. For example, Iran’s Shahed-136 drones, which were used in the attack against Israel, can only fly a maximum speed of around 115 miles per hour. By contrast, Iran’s inventory of MiG-29 inhabited aircraft, which it acquired decades ago in the early 1990s, have maximum speeds closer to 1,500 miles per hour. The slow speed of uninhabited aircraft has helped enable Ukraine to shoot down Russian drones (many provided by Iran) with even unsophisticated air defense tools like machine guns.

Second, today’s drones tend to have only limited countermeasures they can deploy to protect themselves against air defense systems. For instance, they typically do not carry chaff or flares, which can be used to confuse air defense missiles. Compared to inhabited aircraft, military-grade drones (such as the Shahed or the Turkish-built Bayraktar TB-2 drone used by Ukraine) usually have quite limited maneuverability. This weakness, which does not apply to small quadcopters, makes it harder for drones to evade air defense missiles by executing sudden rolls and turns.

Third, the signals that enable communication between a pilot and a drone can be jammed. This is one crucial defense tool Russia and Ukraine have been using to down each other’s drones. It is also a tactic Israel deployed to disrupt the Iranian attack.

Of course, the cat-and-mouse game between drones and air defense will spur future innovations that could make uninhabited aerial vehicles less suspectable to being shot down. For example, drones can be designed to fly at faster speeds, carry more sophisticated countermeasures to air defense systems, and operate autonomously if communication links with pilots are severed. Furthermore, even existing systems do have at least one potential advantage over the defense: shooting down cheap drones that cost just tens of thousands of dollars with expensive air defense assets that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more can bleed the financial resources of a country over time. Israel’s defense likely cost more than Iran’s offensive.

Nevertheless, the high vulnerability of most current-era drones to air defense can help explain why all of the Iranian drones were shot down and failed to reach their intended targets. It also explains why the attrition rates of Ukrainian and Russian drones are similarly high, with Ukraine losing as many as ten thousand drones per month. As one Ukrainian air force pilot said, relatively high-end and expensive Turkish TB-2 drones “were very useful and important in the very first days [of the war] . . . but now that [the Russians have] built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless.”

While many types of drones—especially cheaper, attritable systems—are indeed extremely useful on the battlefield, arguments that drones provide a significant advantage to the offense over the defense are at least somewhat overstated. Countries should thus not consider drones as a panacea, especially when operating against adversaries with relatively advanced air defense systems.

Turning a Weakness Into a Strength

Iran’s attack was not particularly successful from a military or operational perspective in that it failed to hit and inflict significant damage on almost all of its targets. However, it may have been successful from a political perspective in that it helped enable Iran to achieve two of its strategic goals: limiting escalation and maintaining a high reputation for resolve.

Since the devastating Hamas attack against Israel on October 7, it has been clear that Iran has little interest in igniting a wider war in the Middle East. On October 29, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian publicly said, “We don’t want this war to spread out.” In private, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly ordered his military subordinates to adopt a policy of “strategic patience” to avoid escalation. Iran’s deeds also match its words (at least to some extent). For example, Iran has reportedly urged its chief proxy, Hezbollah, to exercise restraint and refrain from launching significant attacks against Israeli territory. Attempting to limit escalation is rational given that Israel is more capable militarily than Iran. A wider war would also risk the United States’ direct involvement in military operations against the Islamic Republic, which is surely a dynamic the supreme leader wishes to avoid.

The use of drones and other remote weapons, such as missiles, helps Iran achieve its goal of limiting escalation with Israel and the United States. Precisely because the Iranian drones failed to hit their mark and cause significant destruction, Israel and the United States were under less pressure to respond forcefully in ways that might raise the risk of a wider war.

In accordance with the logic, President Joe Biden urged Israel not retaliate and told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “You got a win. Take the win.” Israel chose not to fully take Biden’s advice and instead did retaliate against Iran by conducting its own strike against an air defense system near the Iranian city of Isfahan. However, the attack was small, was limited in nature, and appears to have caused little major damage. In fact, Israel had initially planned on a more significant counterattack against Iran, but ultimately settled on a smaller-scale retaliation due to foreign pressure and the ineffectiveness of Iran’s attack. Israel also has incentives to avoid major escalation given that a wider conflict would put it in the precarious position of having to fight a three-front war––against Hamas in Gaza, Iran to the east, and Iran’s proxy Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon.

Iran’s reaction to the Israeli counterattack has been muted, indicating that a de-escalation of the immediate crisis is probable. Iran’s use of drones and other remote systems in the initial attack against Israel is one reason why the Iranian regime was under less pressure to respond forcefully to Israeli retaliation, which could have led to an escalation spiral of attacks and counterattacks. As demonstrated in experimental wargames conducted by MIT professor Erik Lin-Greenberg that presented variable scenarios to individuals with military experience, the shooting down of a drone is less likely to lead to escalation because it does not put at risk a human life. Iran learned this lesson firsthand following its destruction of an expensive American reconnaissance drone in 2019. While President Donald Trump nearly authorized a direct retaliatory attack against Iran, he ultimately changed his mind and noted such a strike is “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone” and “we didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. It would have made a big, big difference.” Therefore, the Iranian leadership could reasonably foresee that the inevitable destruction of Iran’s military aircraft by Israel would be relatively less likely to enrage the Iranian public and put political pressure on the government to strongly retaliate against Israel for the loss of Iranian life.

For all of these reasons and others, research shows that drones are relatively low on the escalation ladder compared to ground attacks or strikes from inhabited aircraft. The use of drones, along with the Iranian government’s declaration following the strike that “the matter [with Israel] can be deemed concluded,” helps serve Iran’s broader strategic goal of limiting escalation, even if the attack was ineffective from a military perspective.

Iran’s attack might also further another strategic political goal––maintaining a strong reputation for resolve. Many leaders strive to foster a reputation for strength for themselves and their countries by using military force, believing (even if mistakenly) that doing so can help deter foreign aggression. Following the Israeli military strike in Syria that killed two high-level Iranian military commanders, Iranian leadership may have believed doing nothing would harm Iran’s image and be perceived as backing down. While impotent militarily, Iran’s attack may have helped achieve this goal by demonstrating its willingness to “do something.” As Iran expert Nicole Grajewski said, Iran’s attack appears to have been “more concerned about symbolism than military destruction.”

The Lessons of Iran’s Attack for Modern Warfare

In sum, despite the meager military impact of Iran’s strike, it may yet serve Iran’s broader political goals. But much depends on whether Israel is willing to avoid taking additional actions that might cause the conflict to escalate into a wider regional war. The impact on Iran’s reputation is also contingent on how the international community perceives Iran’s initial attack and response––or lack thereof––to Israel’s counterattack. While the unprecedented nature of the original Iranian attack on Israeli territory could bolster the country’s reputation for resolve, Iran’s transparent attempts at escalation management could undermine it. The fecklessness of Iran’s attack could also end up harming its reputation for military effectiveness and thus undercut the credibility of its future threats.

In any case, the most interesting aspect of the attack may be what it portends for the future of warfare. The alleged offensive advantage current-generation drones provide over the defense is overrated, but a new era where drones can operate autonomously in coordinated large-scale swarms is coming. To keep pace, defenders will need to continue to innovate cost-effective counter-drone technologies, including the possibility of using drones directly to destroy other drones. Sporadic drone-on-drone “dogfights” have already occurred in the Russia-Ukraine War and may offer a preview of the next generation of remote warfare.

Despite the military deficiencies of contemporary drones, their political utility will continue to be a defining element of modern warfare and statecraft well into the future. As Jacquelyn Schneider said, “These systems exist not because they are invincible, but instead because they decrease political risk for decision makers.” By reducing the financial and human costs of conflict, increasing public support for the use of force, and lessening the chances of escalation, drones are having a transformational effect on international politics.

Joshua A. Schwartz is an assistant professor of international relations and emerging technology at the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology. He has previously published articles on drones in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, and peer-reviewed journals like International Studies Quarterly. You learn more about his work on X or on his website.

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: Hossein Shahbodaghi