Israeli air-defense: A game of cat and mouse.


Israel is currently facing a growing threat of accurate, guided projectiles that are being amassed by its enemies. Once reserved for great superpowers, today, non-state actors can obtain accurate, stand off weapons. They can use GPS-guided rockets and missiles, and off-the-shelf precision navigation technology.

The arrival of guided enemy projectiles boosts the ability to strike targets. In the past, Israeli air defenders had to worry about the quantity of rockets in the arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas. Now, they must think about how to pluck the one rocket heading toward the IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv from a barrage of rockets in the air at any given time.

These threats are joined by Iran’s developing ballistic missile program, and could be compounded by new, radical actors, that appear in an unstable Middle East, each with their own projectile capabilities.


In response, Israel has developed several layers of defense. Not to be confused with Israel’s range of offensive capabilities, these defensive tools are designed to block incoming threats and defend population centers and national strategic sites.

Their appearance in the toolbox of the IDF represents a relatively new understanding by the defense establishment of the importance of investing in capabilities to defend the home front.

As a Western, democratic, and Jewish nation, Israel places a heavy emphasis on its civilian sector. A failure to defend this soft underbelly, which is the prime target of Israel’s adversaries, will turn into major pressure on the Israeli government and the Israeli military.

In the past, the IDF refused to recognize this fact. It instead sought to receive support for its offensive war effort, and told government decision makers that after it achieved battlefield victories, it would deal with the home front.


As a result, historically, the IDF did not make any attempt to develop air defense systems until the 1991 First Gulf War. When many residents of Tel Aviv fled to other cities to avoid Iraq’s Scud missile attacks, the military recognized the need for air defenses. This led to the beginning of the Arrow anti-ballistic missile shield.

Similarly, the Second Lebanon War, and the 4000 projectiles rained down by Hezbollah on northern Israel, prompted the defense establishment to begin developing systems to counter short and medium-range rocket threats. Before that, no one thought of finding solutions to such rockets, even though the southern city of Sderot had experienced years of Palestinian rocket fire from neighboring Gaza.

These changes have also led the defense establishment to revise the core defense doctrine of Israel, and to add a fourth principle. In addition to the established principles of deterrence, intelligence, and achieving a decisive victory, the fourth principle of defense emerged.

This development marks a major shift in the Israeli defense doctrine. Gone were the days when the IAF turned down Hawk surface to air batteries in the 1960s, choosing instead to target enemy fighter squadrons at their bases.

The IDF also opposed the development of the Arrow in the 1990s, saying that the focus should be on attack. These objections were driven by the concern that defensive systems would be interpreted by enemies as an open invitation to fire at Israel, essentially legitimizing their aggression. The old IDF narrative was predicated upon going on the offensive, using ground offensives and firepower to solve the problem.

Today, these offensive concepts are, once again, at the center of the IDF’s vision, but they are no longer alone. They are bolstered by air defenses.

This new understanding has caused Israel to reach deep into its pocket and provide many resources – with the generous assistance of the US in some projects – to create defensive systems. In fact, this has caused a military technology revolution in Israel, leading to the development of a flourishing, domestic industry.

Israel buys fighter jets from the US, but in the field of active defense, the State of Israel has developed its own technology since the 1990s.

The result is the appearance of Arrow 2, which intercepts ballistic missiles in the upper atmosphere, and Arrow 3 – which has just now become operational, and operates in space to intercept incoming ballistic missiles before reentry. We have also seen the deployment of Iron Dome for short and medium-range threats, which proved decisive during the 2014 conflict with Hamas, and David’s Sling, for medium-range rockets, missiles, cruise missiles, and drones.

Israel has pioneered three weapons systems, creating a multi-layered defense, and all from domestic production centers.


The new awareness of defense extends beyond these systems, into a critically important area called passive defense, which involves the conduct of civilians during attacks, and the ability of residential structures to withstand a range of projectile strikes.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the IDF’s Home Front Command drew up regulations, which were passed into law, for the creation of rocket-proof safe rooms in every newly constructed residential building.

The world of alerts is also undergoing a revolution. In 1991, there was one siren that blanketed the entire country. In 2017, a siren could sound in a neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, for example (if being targeted), while other areas, not in danger of being hit, will not be disrupted by a siren, thanks to new accurate warning systems.

Israel’s enemies are, for their part, examining these defensive systems, and looking for ways to overcome them in the next conflict. This is an eternal cat-and-mouse ‘game,’ and it is never stable or fixed.

In the last conflict with Hamas in 2014, the Iron Dome system succeeded in intercepting more than 90% of the incoming threats headed for populated areas. This represents a peak position for Israel’s defensive capabilities.


Yet, in the next war, the public may not realize that the introduction of accurate threats, and, if Hezbollah becomes involved, the arrival of unprecedented numbers of rocket attacks, mean that this 90% interception peak will not be repeated. Projectiles will fall in cities. Casualties will occur. It is precisely because of the peak of success reached in the past, that members of the Israeli public may endanger themselves during future incidences of rocket fire.

In light of the latest threats, it appears likely that in the first 72 hours of a full-scale conflict, civilians will not be able to leave their safe rooms. Civilians must be ready to vacate to such rooms within 15 seconds, and keep them stocked up on water, canned food, a portable radio, and flashlight.

Ultimately the arms race between Israel and its foes is contiguous. Israel upgrades active defense systems after they are produced, to stay a step ahead, yet over a long enough time line, the other side finds a way to overcome those defenses.

In the next war, it is far to assume, border communities will likely receive mandatory evacuation orders – a reflection of the ability of Hezbollah and Hamas to rain down mass mortar and short-range rocket fire, as as well cross-border attack tunnels for terrorist attacks.

In the old world, measures like forced evacuations were seen as defeatist. Today, however, the world of defense has gained its legitimate place under the sun. The state must be proactive in defending the lives of its civilians, and this is the number one responsibility.
This does not replace the importance of offense, but it is a recognition of the changing nature of warfare in the 21st century Middle East, and the ability of terrorist, non-actors, as well as states, to place the Israeli home front on the front line.

Edited by: Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited by: Benjamin Anthony

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author. Visit .

About the Author
Brigadier-General Shachar Shohat (Res.) commanded the Israel Air-Defense Forces from 2012 - 2015. He is the senior Air-Defense Advisor to Our Soldiers Speak.
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