The foreign ministers who attended the Negev Summit in Israel this week came to understandings to deepen their security coordination in defending their airspace from Iranian threats in the Middle East, Israeli defense officials said.
On the invitation of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, his counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, met over two days in the southern Israeli town of Sde Boker.
Even during the summit's initial meeting on Sunday, ideas arose for defense cooperation against Iran – or “a regional security architecture,” as it was dubbed by the participants. The goal is to build deterrence against both aerial and naval threats.
The recent attacks by Iran and its proxies against Saudi infrastructure and other targets in the Middle East have prompted the coalition of Israel and a number of Arab countries in the region to develop a joint mechanism for detecting and intercepting missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
There has already been security coordination on this matter between the Israeli defense establishment and its peers in these countries. This cooperation includes operational coordination, the exchange of relevant intelligence about threats, visits by delegations and joint training between Israeli and foreign air forces.
The Israel Defense Forces have called this air-defense coordination a strategic asset that was not available to it until a few years ago. Among other things, Israel’s partner countries are geographically closer to Iran and Iraq – where a number of Iran-backed militias operate – than Israel, enabling the Israeli Air Force to detect imminent threats earlier.
Israel has not detailed the depth of this coordination; in closed discussions, senior defense officials have said that coordinated air defense has in fact already occurred.
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The defense establishment thinks Iran has identified drones as an effective tool. Consequently, Tehran has worked to arm all the countries and groups that it supports with the ability to launch drones from their own territories in recent years. It provides drones to Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and is still trying to transfer them to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The IDF has also noticed a change in tactics by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which has been trying to fire anti-aircraft missiles at IDF drones flying in Lebanese airspace.
For the Israeli Air Force’s air defense system, this coordination promises to improve Israel's ability to cope with the threat of cruise missiles, drones and other kinds of UAVs that Iran has already used, albeit unsuccessfully, against Israel. Iran and its proxies have used these means against other Middle Eastern countries in the region with much greater success.
The air force has been challenged in past years by Iranian attempts to launch UAVs and explosive drones at Israel. In February 2018, An IDF helicopter downed an Iranian UAV in the Jordan Valley. Another drone was shot down in the Golan Heights area in August 2019, which had been launched by Iranian forces in an attempt to carry out a revenge attack after an alleged Israeli strike killed Iranian personnel.
In March 2021, an F-35 fighter plane intercepted two Iranian drones who were en route to Israel, and in May 2021, during the fighting with Gaza, the air force intercepted a Hamas drone using the Iron Dome missile defense system.
In light of these threats from Iran, the National Security Council instructed the Israeli military in recent months to prepare a plan for striking atomic facilities in Iran. The air force began formulating possible plans of attack about 12 years ago, but the plans were frozen with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Now, as Iran progresses toward developing nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have told the military to present new operational plans according to which Israel would act alone against this threat. Despite this, current assessments from the defense establishment say that this scenario is unlikely, and that figures there cannot yet estimate how effective such an attack would be in the long term.
The current assessment is that Israel’s air defense systems are capable of dealing with existing threats. The air force has 10 Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, which are complemented by other missile defense systems – the Patriot, David’s Sling and the Arrow. By the end of this year, it plans to test a laser-based missile defense system along the Gaza border; it hopes to have it operational by the end of 2024.
Three years after that, defense officials say, it will be possible to install protective systems in airplanes. That would give the air force a significant advantage in protecting the skies above Israel and elsewhere in the region.
An eye on Syria
The IDF is also continuing a policy it began in 2013 of trying to prevent Iran from further entrenching itself in Syria or upgrading the missiles and drones of its partners in the area. Between 2017 and 2021, 408 operations in Syria were attributed to Israel as part of this effort.
Those operations used more than 5,580 missiles and bombs to strike infrastructure and arms convoys. There have been dozens of similar operations over the past year, during which Syria’s aerial defense network has launched missiles at Israeli planes. Syria’s interception capabilities, though, are limited.
The defense establishment began to fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Iran and Syria, would change his approach to coordination with Israel on Syria after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month. This would reduce the air force’s freedom of action there, but this has not come to fruition.
“There’s no change in the Russians’ approach to Israel’s freedom of action and no change in the coordination mechanism that the two countries created in recent years,” a senior defense source said. “We don’t coordinate before strikes in Syria, but we definitely take a calculated risk by striving not to harm Russian army personnel on the ground, and we avoid encounters with Russian planes or those of the other foreign air forces flying there.”
Nevertheless, the air force and military intelligence are continuing to track the entry of more advanced systems into the region, especially Russian systems acquired by Syria. One concern is that Syria will start using Russia’s S-300 system. The Syrian army already has S-300 batteries, but has not yet used them. This could pose a challenge for Israel's air force, should Syria acquire and utilize more such systems.