Iran’s attack on Israel built on lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine

Iran’s missile and drone attack on Israel showed that the Islamic Republic has learned key lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine, employing a strategy to overwhelm air defenses with a layered assault including swarms of drones and missiles traveling faster than the speed of sound.

For Ukraine and its supporters, the attack further demonstrated the dangerous link between Moscow and Tehran and, in their view, should strengthen the argument that defeating Russia in Ukraine will weaken aggressors threatening the U.S. and its allies around the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday condemned the Iranian attack and its use of “Shahed” drones.

“We in Ukraine know very well the horror of similar attacks by Russia, which uses the same ‘Shahed’ drones and Russian missiles, the same tactics of mass air strikes,” Zelensky said in a statement. “The obvious collaboration between the two regimes in spreading terror must face a resolute and united response from the world.”

Russia has deployed the Iranian-made drones against Ukraine for more than a year and a half, with cooperation between Tehran and Moscow improving on the design of the drones, strategies of attacks and capabilities.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that in the same way we’re learning about how our weapons work on the modern-day battlefield — because we’re giving those to Ukraine — there’s no doubt that the Iranians are learning about what works and what doesn’t work, about their drones being used in Ukraine as well,” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.

Coffey pointed to both small and large adjustments Iran has made to its drone fleet, from better camouflage to engine upgrades that make the drones faster and more agile.

“But there’s also something that goes beyond the technical aspect — it’s more about the tactics and the procedures that I think the Iranians have learned from Russia’s airstrikes in Ukraine,” Coffey said.

“This package of airstrikes looks very similar to what we see in Ukraine, from Russia. Meaning that you have an array of different aerial munitions — cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, drones — and they’re all launched either in waves or in such a way that the timing overwhelms air defense.”

Israel, in what is being described as a complex coordinated effort with the U.S., Jordan and other allies, succeeded in blunting an attack from Iran on Saturday. Iran said it launched its attack on Israel in retaliation for an April 1 bombing of its consulate in Syria where senior Iranian military leaders were killed.

The Israeli military said that Iran fired approximately 170 drones, 120 ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles, adding that nearly all were shot down.

“What Iran did, by sending drones first and then missiles, this is a tactic that the Russians are doing, too. There is a connection between them,” said Sina Azodi, visiting scholar and a professorial lecturer of international affairs at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

“From a short-term perspective, you can say this is a defeat for Iranians or they were not successful, but at the end of the day, I think they’re also watching, they’ve seen how their drones or missiles were shot down, and they’re taking notes on how to improve things,” Azodi continued.

“They’ve also tested what would happen in a potential conflict. What would the United States, or Jordanian, and others do? And they just tested how capable Israel’s missile defense system is. They’re taking notes. I’m pretty sure they’re going to work to improve the weapon systems that they have. And I think this is a lesson that the Russians are doing too.”

The Institute for the Study of War, in an analysis, said that while Iran likely anticipated that Israel would have a more robust air defense system compared to Ukraine, it likely was surprised by Israel’s overall success.

“Ukrainian air defenses have averaged interception rates of only about 46% of Russian ballistic missiles during recent large strikes. The Iranians likely expected that Israeli rates would be higher than the Ukrainian rates but not above 90% against such a large ballistic missile salvo,” the group wrote in its analysis.

“The Russians, after all, have never fired close to that many large ballistic missiles in a single strike against Ukraine.”

Israel’s successful defense is being credited as built on years of preparation and training, but also closer ties with Gulf states made possible by the Abraham Accords.

Still, the Iranian attack is being described as a significant challenge.

Retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaacov Ayish, senior vice president for Israeli Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, described Iran’s drone and missile assault as trying to “overwhelm and to saturate” Israel’s air defense network, but also U.S. and other regional partners.

The combination of drones and cruise missiles had the effect of “stretching intelligence and detecting capabilities of the different layers,” Ayish said.

“Definitely they were aware of some of those capabilities and they were trying to overwhelm them,” he added, referring to Iran.

The White House has taken pains to not explicitly link the two fights.

“These are different conflicts, different air spaces, different threat picture,” John Kirby, the White House national security communications adviser, said Monday.

“The president has been clear since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. is not going to be involved in that conflict in a combat role. We have been providing Ukraine the tools they need to defend their air space, unfortunately we can’t do that right now because we don’t have the national security supplemental funding that they need.”

But the White House is pushing for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to allow a vote on the Senate-passed $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes aid for Ukraine, Israel and other priorities.

“You’ve got two good friends here, Israel and Ukraine, very different fights to be sure, but active fights for their sovereignty and their security,” Kirby said.

“Time is not on anyone’s side here, in either case. They need to move quickly on this, and the best way to get that aid into the hands of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers is to pass that bipartisan bill that the Senate passed.”

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