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Iran is playing a high-stakes game by attacking Israel

What political science tells us about conflict, war, and unmanned attacks.

- April 17, 2024

On April 13, Iran launched a retaliatory attack against Israel, sending approximately 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles from Iranian territory towards Israeli military outposts. The attack was a significant escalation in an ongoing set of reprisals between the two countries. Not only was the attack massive in terms of the amount of weapons, it was also launched from Iranian territory – neither covertly or via proxies

Despite the significance of the incident, the attack caused little damage. An international coalition of airplanes and air defenses destroyed most of the incoming salvo. Israel reported no deaths and most of the injuries seem to be not from missile attacks, but instead from the debris of munitions destroyed in-air. 

But this game of escalation control, signaling, and crisis stability tactics is risky. After all, this was Iran’s first direct attack on Israeli territory. Historically, Iran has chosen to operate through its proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. So why do it? 

The answer lies in the unmanned nature of the operation. Here’s what you need to know.

Unmanned operations put distance between attacker and target

“Unmanned” systems – also known as uncrewed, remotely operated, autonomous – span a wide array of different technologies from drones to remotely piloted aircraft to cruise or ballistic missiles. The systems used in this particular attack seem to include smaller “kamikaze” drones – sometimes known as loitering munitions – potentially larger unmanned aerial vehicles about the size of an American Predator, as well as cruise and ballistic missiles. 

These unmanned technologies differ in size, precision, effectiveness and, perhaps most importantly, cost. What makes these kinds of missile and drone salvos different from the precision-guided shock and awe campaigns of the end of the twentieth century is that this type of attack is relatively low cost, and requires significantly less logistical support. 

What all these unmanned systems have in common is that they increase the physical distance between the shooter and the target. In doing so, they create a psychological distance between attack and retaliation. The attacking country’s hope is that unmanned weapons can limit risk while signaling resolve and credibility, two key characteristics of successful deterrence. These attributes make unmanned operations a very attractive option in crises.

Iran has played this high-stakes game before

In 2019, Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. plane. In 2020, Iran launched missiles at the U.S.al-Asad airbase in Iraq, in retaliation for the U.S. drone that killed a top Iranian military leader Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. With no manned Iranian incursion into allied territory, the United States had space to play down both of these incidents. 

How do unmanned systems create this physical and psychological distance? First, and most concretely, unmanned systems decrease the political risk of losing combatants in enemy territory (think Gary Powers and the 1960 U2 overflight). If a country thinks their pilot might get shot down, then it makes sense to substitute a manned platform – or 300 of them – for a less survivable unmanned system. 

Unmanned systems also affect escalation risk. A series of recent academic papers find that when it comes to escalation risk, how countries use military force is as important as whether they use it. Erik Lin Greenberg, for example, finds that the unmanned nature of an incident has a significant impact on perceptions of escalation, and that leaders believe drones and missiles are less escalatory than manned platforms. Similarly, work on cyber operations and escalation finds that how an attack is conducted (i.e., cyber versus other physical means) creates firebreaks and even incentives for de-escalation.

Drones may give Iran a cost advantage

Of course, Iran uses unmanned weapons not only by choice but out of tactical necessity. That’s because its air force consists of a fleet of aging Russian and Western aircraft crewed by pilots with very limited training. But Iran’s reliance on drones and missiles may come with another advantage: cost.

To be sure, even if Iran and Israel manage to avoid all-out war, tit for tat attacks come at a staggering economic cost. Iran’s strike probably cost less than $250 million. Compare this to reports on the Israeli [cost to defend. One former Israeli official estimated the tab could run as much as $1.35 billion (though much of this is dependent on what interception systems were used). That gives Iran a strong cost advantage.

Historical examples demonstrate the pivotal role that economic cost plays in determining which warring parties are able to refill arsenals, equip their armies, and ultimately win wars over time. During the sixteenth century, Siena bankrupted itself building extensive fortifications. The city-state was left both partially undefended and unable to pay for an army when Florence invaded in 1553. 

More recently, World War I may have been a story of stalemate and technological innovation. But it would have been impossible for the Allies to create the revolutionary shift towards victory without its victory in the materialschlact, or battle of resources, over Germany. In fact, research by Amy Zegart at Stanford showed that it was how drones created cost advantage and allowed modern governments to sustain conflict over time that made drones a powerful signaling tool for deterrence.

These operations are riskier than they might seem 

In the end, Iran’s attack was more demonstration than detonation. This supports recent scholarship that questioned drones’ survivability and therefore their impact on modern warfare. But it is dangerous to take too much comfort in this weekend’s successful interceptions of drones and missiles. In the Israel-Iran conflict, there’s a very real possibility that the Iranians may accidentally be successful enough in these salvos to trigger a more violent or expansive war. We may never know if the Iranians intentionally miss targets, but they have been lucky so far to fail. We can only hope that Iran and Israel know the odds.

More broadly, betting that the unmanned nature of weapons can control escalation is risky, and fraught with uncertainty. That’s because escalation is what countries make of it. The next decision will come from the Netanyahu war cabinet. Culture, history, geography, and even language can create dangerous misperceptions as adversaries navigate between crisis and conflict.

Jacquelyn Schneider is a Hoover Fellow and director of the Wargaming and Crisis Simulation Initiative at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Her book, The Hand By Unmanned, with Julia Macdonald, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.