Political Airpower, Part I: Say No to the No-Fly Zone


There is an old adage about shortcuts: If they worked, they would simply be called “the way.” For military strategy, any shortcuts come with significant penalties. This is applicable across multiple domains, and it is the reason that operational flexibility is valued so highly in conflict. Since before World War II, advocates have trumpeted airpower as a strategic and tactical shortcut — the way to win battles and even wars without the messy complications inherent in the operations of other military arms. After the rise of airpower in World War II, it was invigorated by the lopsided victory in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm and propagated through repeated limited military air-centric actions. These conflicts reinforced the notion that airpower is the solution to all military challenges overseas. The problem with this view is that it is not supported by a century of evidence. Although airpower can prove decisive and has even been used as the primary method of settling conflicts, airpower is not the one-size-fits-all solution its most fervent proponents make it out to be. Air campaigns, just like naval and ground campaigns, must be carefully tailored to political and military objectives, the adversary, the environment, and the prevailing conditions. Over the last 25 years, there has been an evolving political infatuation with two pillars of “political airpower”: airstrikes and no-fly zones. While each can be effective, neither is a shortcut around a need for a comprehensive strategy — both are merely elements of one.

The Rise of Limited Intervention

In Korea, airpower played a valuable supporting role, particularly when ground forces were rocked back on their heels by major communist assaults. In Vietnam, airpower became a visible element of a strategy intended to apply gradually increasing force — the creeping incrementalism of Operation Rolling Thunder. Despite poor effectiveness when used this way, combat airpower evolved into the presidential choice of military force du jour, used in Cambodia, Libya, Panama, Lebanon, and Grenada in the 15 years after the fall of Saigon. Airpower application demonstrated political will while minimizing risk and masquerading as a strategy. In many ways, airpower changed the flavor of U.S. limited intervention from gunboats and marines to fighters and precision weapons.

The modern aversion to military commitment of forces in time-critical situations can be traced back to the scars from a series of tragic missteps during the Mayaguez incident a month after the Vietnam War officially ended. On May 12, 1975, Cambodian gunboats boarded American cargo ship SS Mayaguez, kidnapped the crew, and moved the ship and crew off the Cambodian coast. What followed was a disastrous American rescue attempt — 15 troops killed, three missing in action, 50 wounded, another 23 killed in a helicopter crash enroute, and several other aircraft lost or severely damaged.

Certainly this tragic bookend to the Vietnam War was in the minds of planners during the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s. After the bombing of the Marine barracks in October 1983, conditions continued to escalate, and other options were weighed that reduced the risk of further casualties. On Dec. 2, 1983, President Reagan set the precedent of today’s surgical airstrikes when he ordered the retaliatory bombing of a Syrian anti-aircraft position located east of Beirut that had fired on a reconnaissance plane supporting the peacekeeping force. A strike package of 28 aircraft set out with a haphazard plan to bomb the position. Two aircraft were shot down over Lebanon (an A-6 and A-7), and one A-7 was so badly damaged that it was pushed overboard after landing on its aircraft carrier. With one navigator captured, one pilot rescued, and one killed, it was not a resounding success for naval airpower. The Reagan administration learned from this. As it turned its  attention toward the worsening conditions in Libya, in 1985 Reagan ordered a practice run of a long-range F-111 airstrike from the United Kingdom to Canada called Operation Ghost Rider. The lessons learned from this were incorporated into the real mission, the 1986 Libya airstrikes during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, continued this practice during his own administration by ushering in the no-fly zone era: the post-Desert Storm Operations Provide Comfort and Southern Watch (1991-2003). Bill Clinton ran his 1992 presidential campaign on the promise of a “lift and strike” policy (lift the arms embargo and conduct airstrikes) to end the conflict in Bosnia, which led to continuing the political airpower trend in Operations Deny Flight (1993) and Deliberate Force (1995). He also continued the no-fly zone in northern Iraq, changing only the name (from Provide Comfort III to Northern Watch). President Clinton continued to lean even more heavily on airpower as a coercive instrument in Desert Fox (Iraq, 1998) and Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999). The sporadic airstrikes in the Iraqi no-fly zones which started on Dec. 28, 1998 ensured the complete dismantling of a revitalized Iraqi air defense system by 2003.  Most recently, this tired formula was once again repeated in Libya in 2011, though the country is still living the ensuing civil war and remains a breeding ground for more violent extremism.

Figure 1:  An F-4G approaches Incirlik AB after a Provide Comfort III sortie in 1994.  (Capt. Mike Pietrucha)

The Emergence of the No-Fly Zone

The no-fly zone emerged as a policy tool to protect vulnerable populations. After the Gulf War ended with much of Iraq’s army still intact, Saddam Hussein was able to successfully put down revolts among the Shia in Basra and the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Fearing the inevitable retribution, well over a million Kurdish civilians headed north toward the Turkish border, which had not yet emerged from winter. British forces started a relief effort, which was soon supported by a U.N. resolution, plus American, Turkish, and other NATO forces. The no-fly zone followed close behind, a mere five weeks after the end of Desert Storm.

The official declaration of a no-fly zone formalized the current state of affairs, as Air Force F-15s had already shot down two Iraqi Su-22 jets over northern Iraq by this point. Operations Provide Comfort II and III followed and then continued under the name Northern Watch from 1997 on. While the focus of the operation was on the “no-fly” aspect of the zone, operations in the north also enforced a “no-radiate” condition on SAM systems and effectively defended the “Green Line” between Iraqi and Kurdish areas above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq.

Southern Watch began in 1992, following the success in the north. It was later expanded in 1996 to include a “no-drive zone” that prevented Iraqi military operations in much the same way that an (undeclared) military-free zone was enforced in northern Iraq. Southern Watch also served as cover for an undeclared campaign called Southern Focus, intended to dismantle all Iraqi air defenses in the zone prior to the 2003 invasion.

In Bosnia, Operation Deny Flight was also intended to protect vulnerable populations from air attack, although it did not provide Bosnian civilians with the same protective umbrella against ground force incursions as the Iraqi NFZs. By the end of the 1990s, no-fly zones were established as an effective policy measure — provided that the goal was containment and that the adversary was massively overmatched. In retrospect, the cost of the Iraqi no-fly zones was a bargain: $1 to 2 billion per year and no casualties from hostile action.

Drawing Insights from Kosovo

As discussed, the no-fly zone was born in a post-Cold War era when the United States possessed such a lopsided military advantage that a political aversion to risk coupled with a relatively low demand on airpower resources could still pull it off. To establish a no-fly zone, one must first gain and maintain air supremacy — not merely air superiority. However, there is no real precedent to establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone against any meaningful resistance, and meaningful resistance doesn’t simply mean enemy fighters anymore. In the new era of air warfare wherein the lethality of modern proliferated Russian or Chinese air defenses easily trumps the threat from fighters, a NFZ must prioritize negating threats to friendly aircraft first. Operation Allied Force provides insights to the magnitude of what this endeavor might entail and shows that this is much more difficult than the casual strategist or armchair operational planner realizes.

During 1999’s Allied Force, U.S. planners knew of 44 surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) in theater: three nonoperational SA-2F Fan Songs, 16 SA-3 Low Blows, and 25 SA-6 Straight Flush fire control radars, all in an area the size of Connecticut (30 percent smaller than Kuwait). The newest system, the SA-6, had reached operational capability in 1969. The air defense system was supported by numerous covert observers and over 100 acquisition and tracking radars ranging from the relatively old SPOON REST to the more modern TPS-63, all of which were connected by underground land lines and fiber optic cables. There was also a smattering of 40mm antiaircraft guns, as well as ubiquitous SA-7 and SA-9 heat-seeking missiles. Serbian defenders executed a smart air defense plan built on lessons learned from the Iraqi experience from Desert Storm. Their strategy’s success was evidenced by the fact they fired as many missiles the last day of the conflict as the first night and scored the first-ever downing of a stealth aircraft.

The air threat posed by the Serbian Air Force was minimal, and it was rapidly reduced by U.S. Air Force F-15Cs and Dutch F-16AMs on those rare occasions when a Serbian MiG-29 took flight. To maintain freedom of maneuver during the 78-day campaign, 743 High-Speed Anti-radiation Missiles (HARMs) were shot by U.S. and NATO aircraft against an obsolescent but credible SAM threat. Combined with a robust compilation of electronic jamming, the use of almost 1,500 towed decoys and counter-tactics largely negated the threat to aircraft (though they were also mostly restricted to higher altitudes to minimize risk).

Still, the Air Force lost two aircraft (an F-117 and F-16) to these threats, and a handful of others sustained damage. The suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) effort was effective at forcing air defenders to keep their heads down while F-15E and F-16C aircraft engaged in a destruction effort, but it was a continual cat-and-mouse game. As a RAND study noted, due to the realities of unassured air supremacy in Kosovo, high-value intelligence platforms such as the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) had to stand off outside the threat region. This deficiency, combined with the mountainous geography of Kosovo, created an abundance of “radar shadowing” that hindered critical wide area surveillance of Serbian force movements throughout the conflict.

Figure 2:  The last frame from an AGM-130 fired at a Serbian SA-6 by FIAT91/92, a flight of two F-15Es on 14 April 1999.  The SAM radar was obliterated a second later by a 2000-lb. warhead.  (U.S. Air Force)


The price of expendables supporting this 78-day undertaking of air superiority was not inconsequential: $208 million in HARMs ($280,000 each) and $33 million in towed decoys ($22,000 each). Aggregated to a yearlong endeavor, this expendable bill alone could buy a squadron of F-35s. Though Milosevic did eventually capitulate, even within the Air Force, Operation Allied Force is generally seen as an operational failure that happened to succeed — and that was 17 years ago.

Today’s Reality

The success of a no-fly zone relies on the premise of conventional deterrence backed by the resolve to swiftly and ferociously enforce it if challenged. Attempting this today against a nation with any semblance of artillery, MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), and/or advanced SAMs tends to indicate that the no-fly zone simply is neither operationally feasible nor politically appetizing. And by “advanced,” we mean anything built since the 1980s that boasts digital processing, multi-targeting, longer-range missiles, and higher maneuverability. The proliferation of modern air defenses since the 1990s dictates that more sortie apportionment and resources are required to negate these threats — much more so than counter-air fighters. That’s the way it was in the Iraqi no-fly zones, where SEAD assets were available alongside aircraft tasked for defensive counter-air or reconnaissance missions. The fog and friction of war dictate there will always be ambiguity of timely, accurate, and correct intelligence in operations. Therefore, it is not only conceivable, but highly likely, that the conventional surveillance and reconnaissance constellation of aircraft will always remain at stand-off distances during a nation-state conflict — as they did in Kosovo to negate this uncertain threat risk — though at exponentially further ranges.

Today, the idea of establishing a no-fly zone inside Syria occasionally surfaces, a misguided response to the recent  events surrounding the risk of U.S. special operations forces inside Syria to aerial attack, which in reality calls for defensive counter-air missions, not an no-fly zone. The no-fly zone is also broached as an idea to protect civilians on the ground in Syria — the same rationale behind the first such zone in northern Iraq. True, to date, the total civilian deaths now exceeds 400,000, and the number of refugees has surpassed 4.5 million — both more than Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing (100,000) and Kosovo’s refugee crisis (700,000). However, the conditions could not be more different. In the case of Syria, an no-fly zone is problematic for both practical and policy reasons, as the majority of civilian casualties do not occur from air attack. The challenges of protecting civilian populations in a multi-faceted civil war are far more comprehensive than anything seen before.

Discounting the ground and political situation for the sake of analysis, Syria’s air defenses provide a case study in the obsolescence of the no-fly zone. By comparison to Kosovo’s 41 1960s-era SAMs, Syria’s robust air defenses total over 130 systems, most which are vastly more lethal than their older counterparts. As many as a dozen encompass the area surrounding Aleppo, the crucible of the civil war. Syria also has over 4,000 air defense artillery pieces and a few thousand portable infrared-guided missile systems.

In the world we live in today, a single system can completely invert this relationship overnight. This was notably seen in the Russian deployment of an S-400 system to Syria. This capability inverts both the risk imposition and the paradigm of power projection, thereby undermining the foundational premise of conventional deterrence (with parallels to the S-300 recently delivered to Iran).

The Cost of Business

Back in 2013, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey described a Syrian no-fly zone cost at $1 billion a month — triple the cost of current operations and a tenfold increase compared to Iraq’s no-fly zone. He also cautioned:

We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.

And this is certainly not sustainable. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein states it best: “We have far more mission than we have Air Force today.” When the Iraq no-fly zone era ended in 2003, the Air Force possessed 450 more fighters than today in the inventory to perform this role, a 21 percent reduction. To put this in perspective, the forces lost in this drawdown rival the size of some of the top 10 largest air forces in the world, none of which have ever attempted to establish a no-fly zone on its own. If the United States were to commit a preponderance of its Air Force to attempt a no-fly zone, what would be left to deter other countries lying in wait for just such an opportunity to seize (i.e. China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran)?

Beyond the Zone

Just as the shield was made obsolete by gunpowder-powered weapons, warfare has evolved beyond what the promise of the no-fly zone can provide. Attempting to draw parallels to prior no-fly zone efforts discounts the reality that warfighters must deal with in the 21st century. Still, the discussion occasionally resurfaces in political campaign dialogue, defense websites, and the water-cooler debate. After all, it is political airpower.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez