The Dangerous Allure of the No-Fly Zone
Editor’s Note: This is a heavily revised and updated version of an article written by the authors for these pages in 2016. Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
A press conference with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson captivated the world when Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian activist, implored him and other Western leaders to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine to shelter its people from Russian aircraft. The tragedy of the current situation, the sincerity and sadness of the activist, and prime minister’s delicately worded but practical response — in which he told her that there would not be a no-fly zone due to the risk of a NATO-Russian war — made footage of the press conference go viral.
The internet has since buzzed with the question: Why hasn’t a coalition established a no-fly zone?
Contrary to what so many in the commentariat seem to believe, a no-fly zone is not a military half-measure. It is a combat operation designed to deprive the enemy of its airpower, and it involves direct and sustained fighting. The fact is, a general European war has not started, and we must do everything we can to ensure it does not. That means that a no-fly zone should be off the table.
Part of the reason that no-fly zones keep being brought up as solutions is that the nature of airpower is so poorly understood. Advocates have trumpeted airpower as a strategic and tactical shortcut for nearly a century — 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, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 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. Unfortunately, a byproduct of a generation of low-intensity operations has only reinforced this evolving political infatuation with two pillars of what we term 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 History of the No-Fly Zone
After Operation Desert Storm ended in 1991 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, Operation Provide Comfort, 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 the operation.
The official declaration of a no-fly zone formalized the current state of affairs, as U.S. 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 surface-to-air missile systems and effectively defended the “Green Line” between Iraqi and Kurdish areas above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq. U.S. forces were in direct conflict with Iraqi forces.
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. Again, U.S. forces were in direct conflict with Iraqi forces.
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 no fly zones had. By the end of the 1990s, no-fly zones were embraced as a practical 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: $1–2 billion per year and no casualties from hostile action. However, once again, U.S. forces were in direct conflict with Iraqi forces.
Drawing Insights from Kosovo
A key principle in the American way of war is first to gain and maintain air superiority, which gives ground forces the freedom from attack — and the freedom to attack. The difference between this and a no-fly zone is that the latter emerged as a policy tool to protect vulnerable populations — not a military tool to achieve operational ends. To establish a no-fly zone, one must first gain and maintain air supremacy — not merely air superiority. Air supremacy means not only control of the air, but also the elimination of threats to air operations from the ground.
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 relatively low demand on airpower resources could still pull it off. However, there is no historical 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 no-fly zone must prioritize negating threats to friendly aircraft first to be successful.
Operation Allied Force provides a glimpse of 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 the 1999 operation, U.S. planners knew of 44 surface-to-air missile systems in a theater the size of Connecticut, supported by a smattering of 40 millimeter antiaircraft guns and ubiquitous SA-7 and SA-9 heat-seeking missiles. The newest system, the SA-6, was already 30-year-old technology at the time.
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 were shot by U.S. and NATO aircraft against an obsolescent but credible missile 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). Those missiles were not just attacking radar sites, they were attacking the opposition soldiers manning those radar sites.
Still, the U.S. 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 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 always, the suppression of enemy air defenses was a team effort. Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers, Spanish and U.S. Navy F-18s, and Air Force F-16CMs would suppress enemy air defenses by jamming radars and shooting antiradiation missiles, while F-15Es and F-16CGs attacked the missile batteries with much heavier ordnance, often in the 2000-lb class, sufficient to turn a missile battery and its radar into finely distributed metal scraps. As a RAND study noted, despite a world-class air force’s best effort against a second-rate defense, the United States never gained air supremacy. High-value intelligence platforms such as the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System were prohibited from flying over land where their sensors were most useful and instead had to stand off outside the threat region. Though Slobodan Milosevic did eventually capitulate, Operation Allied Force is generally viewed as an operational failure that happened to succeed — and that was over 20 years ago.
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, man-portable air defense systems, and/or advanced surface-to-air missiles tends to indicate that a no-fly zone 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 Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses assets were available alongside aircraft tasked for defensive counter-air or reconnaissance missions.
Compounding this, the fog and friction of war dictate that 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, just as they did in Kosovo to negate this uncertain threat risk — though at exponentially further ranges.
In Syria, the idea of establishing a no-fly zone regularly surfaced, a misguided response to the use of Syrian (and later Russian) airpower. The eventual solution was not so much a no-fly zone as a defensive counterair effort over areas held by friendly forces. There, a no-fly zone was problematic for both practical and policy reasons since the majority of civilian casualties did not occur from air attack. The challenges of protecting civilian populations in a multi-faceted civil war were far more comprehensive than anything seen before, and the direct involvement of Russian airpower in Syria totally changed the nature of the conflict. Then, as now, any no-fly zone would have involved direct combat with Russian forces.
A No-Fly Zone in Ukraine?
Today, in Ukraine, the air defense threat does not appear to have materialized against Ukrainian aircraft, at least in terms of ground-based threat. That may be because, at this time, Russian forces still only control a small part of Ukraine, and they cannot emplace air defenses in the territory they do not control. Army air defenses move along with the forces that they defend and require some degree of protection against ground threats. Nevertheless, the Russian Aerospace Forces do possess long-range air defenses that can reach well into Ukraine from Russia (and perhaps Belarus). The Russian air force operate long-ranged S-300 and S-400 variants. These mobile systems can cover large swathes of Ukrainian airspace without entering Ukraine, although low-altitude coverage would be spotty and limited.
The establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine would unquestionably be a major escalation in the conflict and would bring NATO and possibly other European forces into direct conflict with Russian forces. It’s also not clear what military advantage might accrue. The majority of Ukrainian civilian casualties seem not to be inflicted by airpower but by artillery. Russian precision strikes seem to be inflicted by ballistic and cruise missiles, which once fired cannot be interdicted by aircraft in a no-fly zone.
The fact that Russia does not yet have air superiority has not significantly impeded its advance. Ukraine does not control its skies either — the two sides have air parity. Enforcement of a no-fly zone would require overflight of Ukrainian airspace, putting coalition forces directly in the air space both sides are fighting over — and at extreme risk from both Russian and Ukrainian air defenses. Surface-based air defenses in bordering nations could only command airspace where Russian aircraft aren’t flying, having no practical effect except to commit NATO. The obvious Russian response, attacking aircraft over Ukraine from outside Ukraine, would be yet another escalatory element that would render Russian air defenses politically immune from counterattack.
From a distant viewpoint, the no-fly zone might seem like a somewhat impersonal option for the employment of military force. The reality is that effective enforcement involves flying over territory where fighting is occurring, and enforcing a no-fly zone means the intent to kill anything that opposes it — whether a fighter in the air or a missile system on the ground.
In Ukraine, the potential no-fly zone is fundamentally a political statement. In this case, the political statement is much more than the threat of escalation — it is a direct escalation against Russia and a general widening of the conflict to include NATO as a direct combatant.
As such, a no-fly zone imposition serves only Ukraine, which would gain NATO as a co-belligerent without the precursor of a formal alliance. In effect, this political use of airpower would mirror the entangling alliances that brought Europe into World War I. The no-fly zone is the wrong tool for the wrong job and would create dangerous and destructive outcomes for the United States and its NATO allies.
Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha retired from the Air Force as a colonel. He 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, he has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mike Benitez is a retiring active-duty officer with over 25 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force. He has served in various operational, training and staff positions and has held fellowships in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Congress, and Silicon Valley. He is also a founder of the Merge, a defense newsletter.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.