A world war in waiting: After Iran's attack, it's almost here

Nobody wants World War III — but it's foolish to pretend we're not at the edge of that abyss

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published April 16, 2024 9:27AM (EDT)

A barrage of rockets was launched by Lebanese group Hezbollah from southern Lebanon towards Galilee in northern Israel, on April 12, 2024 in Lebanon. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
A barrage of rockets was launched by Lebanese group Hezbollah from southern Lebanon towards Galilee in northern Israel, on April 12, 2024 in Lebanon. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

An act of war. I’ll just bet you didn’t see or hear those words in any coverage over the weekend of Iran’s aggression from the air on Israel. What else can we call 120 ballistic missiles; 170 armed drones; 30 cruise missiles? That’s what Iran fired at Israel Saturday night. One report I read said the barrage was fired from three countries in addition to Iran: Iraq, Yemen and Syria. How would you feel if you were walking down the street on Saturday night in Chicago or Indianapolis or Phoenix or Seattle, and suddenly you began to hear the sound of explosions, and you looked up and saw streaks of flaming debris from exploded missiles falling to the ground? Would it feel like you were witnessing a war on the city where you live, on your country?

You bet it would, especially when you consider what went into the Iranian attack. Iran knew that Israel has spent the last few decades building its so-called Iron Dome missile defense capability – a complex system of radars and anti-missile missile launchers that encircle its military installations and population centers like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and the cities in Israel’s north within striking distance of Hezbollah missiles. We can be certain that Iran spent days if not weeks preparing for Saturday night’s strike, working out a plan to launch its barrage of drones and missiles to reach targets in Israel in a swarm that might overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense system.

Defending against even a few missiles is an incredibly complex task. The missiles and drones must be picked up on radar far enough out from their targets that they can be engaged by anti-missile missiles fired from the ground and from Israeli aircraft stationed along Israel’s eastern borders. Neither Jordan nor Israel has admitted it openly, but it seems likely that Jordanian airspace was opened to Israeli warplanes defending Israel from the Iranian attack. Jordan admitted on Sunday that it had opened its airspace to “allied” forces — and Britain and the U.S. announced that their warplanes had shot down multiple drones as they flew toward Israel. Nearly the missiles and drones fired on Sunday were shot down, according to Israel and the Pentagon.

Some of the shootdowns took place over Iraq, Syria and Jordan, according to Pentagon reports on Sunday. The Washington Post reported that two squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles were deployed to intercept drones headed for Israel. One squadron was based in North Carolina, and the other in the U.K. The Air Force fighters can be used as air-to-air fighters, as bombers, and for what the Pentagon described as “deep interdiction.” This means U.S. fighters were lingering in airspace in the 1,000 miles between Iran and Israel, backed up by AWACS air defense command-and-control aircraft and aerial refueling tankers supplying fuel to the F-15’s to keep them airborne for hours at a time. The Pentagon said on Sunday that U.S. aircraft were involved in shooting down about 70 Iranian drones. Two U.S. destroyers based in the Mediterranean shot down between four and six ballistic missiles, and a U.S. Patriot battery based in Irbil, Iraq, shot down at least one Iranian ballistic missile as it crossed Iraqi airspace on its way toward Israel.

So, many of the drones and missiles Iran aimed at Israel were shot down before they even reached Israel. Still, in the early hours of Sunday morning in Israel, a swarm of ballistic and cruise missiles got through the outer defense ring and had to be engaged by Israel’s Iron Dome defense. Shooting down a large number of missiles that arrive all at once is an extraordinarily complex undertaking. The ballistic missiles must be picked up and tracked on radars while they are outside the earth’s atmosphere. As they close in on their targets, other Iron Dome radars begin tracking them, and each missile is assigned by a missile defense control system to individual anti-missile missile launchers which fire at the individual missiles to shoot them down. 

Multiple anti-missile missiles can be fired at individual targets, but it is preferable if each incoming ballistic or cruise missile is assigned to a specific anti-missile missile launcher, and a single missile is dedicated to bring down the enemy weapon.

In a swarm attack such as that launched against Israel by Iran, all of this is happening at once — the tracking of ballistic missiles, their assignments as targets for individual Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, and their acquisition by the anti-missile missiles themselves so they can reach their targets and shoot them out of the sky.

On Iran’s end of the attack is a similar attack scenario, just as complex. The Pentagon has said that Iran’s attack came from multiple countries, each of which is a different distance from Israel. Ballistic missiles fired from western Iran have about a 12-minute flight time to Israel. Fired from eastern Iran, their flight times would be longer. There are reports that some ballistic missiles were fired from Yemen by Houthi militia, and those missiles would have a still longer flight time. In order for the ballistic missiles to hit their intended targets in Israel in a swarm, dozens of calculations had to be done to determine launch times for individual ballistic missiles, and since cruise missiles take hours, not minutes, to reach their targets, they had to be launched even earlier.

Iran is playing a dangerous game of military chess against the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

You get the picture. It took nationwide coordination by Iran’s military, with launchers located in multiple countries, to achieve the swarm attack they made on Israel. The attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was done by a swarm of more than 300 Japanese fighters, dive bombers, altitude bombers and torpedo bombers. The Japanese planes were launched by six aircraft carriers stationed off the coast of Hawaii and timed to hit multiple targets in and around Pearl Harbor beginning at 7:48 a.m. The attack caught U.S. fighters on the ground and U.S. warships anchored and at dock in Pearl Harbor by surprise. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the act of war that forced this country into war against Japan and, after the Nazi regime allied itself with Japan, war with Germany as well.

Iran is playing a dangerous game of military chess against the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Iran has been supplying Russia with the same kinds of drones it launched against Israel on Saturday night, and has helped Russia build its own manufacturing capability to produce several designs of Shahed drones to use against Ukraine.

North Korea has allied itself with Russia in its war on Ukraine, supplying the Russian military with ammunition for its 152mm howitzers. CNN reported in February that North Korea’s arms factories are “operating at full capacity” to supply Russia with howitzer rounds and multiple launch ground-to-ground rockets. Russia, in return, has agreed to supply North Korea with badly needed food stocks.

There is no evidence that China has joined in supplying arms and ammunition to Russia, but China has been busy elsewhere creating headaches for the U.S. and its Pacific allies, mainly in the South China Sea. China has built military installations by expanding sand spits in order to support air bases and resupply stations for its navy. China is currently involved in a kind of shadow war with the Philippines over control of islands in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, leading Manila to offer the U.S. land and maritime facilities to build new American military bases on the islands.

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Eliot Cohen, who holds the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has an excellent article in the current Atlantic on what he calls the “coalition of the malevolent” that has emerged between Iran, Russia, China and North Korea. He makes the point that Iran’s attack Saturday on Israel is the first “daylight” attack Iran has made from its soil against its main enemy in the Middle East, and links Iran’s attack to the open violence that China is waging on the Philippines and Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. It’s all part of a greater assault on the “rules based international order,” according to Cohen.

Over the weekend, practically the entire U.S. punditocracy devoted itself to worrying about Israel’s response to Iran over the coming days and weeks, and whether it will lead to what they call “a wider war in the Middle East.” Cohen makes the point that there is already a wider war going on in a wider region that includes most of the world except the Americas and Australia, although that country has begun to feel threatened by China’s moves in the South China Sea, as have Vietnam and Indonesia.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a coalition of right-wing “America first” lunatics were trying to lull this country to sleep with talk about taking care of what goes on within our borders before worrying about what’s happening overseas.  

Sound familiar? World War III hasn’t started yet, but it’s time to wake up and watch out. That goes double for one of our two political parties that is in lockstep with Mr. America First himself, Donald Trump.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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China Commentary Gaza Iran Israel Middle East North Korea Russia Ukraine War