- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine to keep Russian jets out of the country’s airspace.
- No-fly zones (NFZs) are typically established to prevent one side from using its air power to batter the other, with the goal of protecting civilians, in particular.
- The problem is that a no-fly zone would lead to combat between NATO and Russia, and could lead to a large-scale conventional war—or worse—between the two sides.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to gut-wrenching scenes of civilians caught in the crossfire of war, along with suffering among Ukraine’s beleaguered military. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly called on his NATO allies to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) to protect his country, but the United States and the United Kingdom remain in steadfast opposition.
“Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it, including potentially expand it to NATO territory,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a joint press conference on Wednesday with U.K. Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. “Introducing, in our case … American pilots into Ukrainian airspace, whether on a full or on a limited basis, would almost certainly lead to direct conflict between the United States—between NATO—and Russia, and that would expand the conflict. It would prolong it. It would make it much more deadlier than it already is.”
So what exactly is a no-fly zone, and why do NATO leaders see it as a bad idea in this particular instance?
A Brief History of No-Fly Zones
The no-fly zone is a relatively new concept that dates back to the first Gulf War. After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 1991, Saddam Hussein used what remained of his air force to crush uprisings among his Shiite minority in the south and the Kurds in the north. The U.S. and its allies set up no-fly zones—enforced by fighter jet patrols and AWACS early warning aircraft—over the Shiites and the Kurds to keep Iraqi planes away. NATO mounted a similar effort, Operation Deny Flight, over the former country of Yugoslavia between 1993 to 1995.
Furthermore, air combat is just part of a no-fly zone. In order to safely enforce it, allied jets must be protected from enemy air defenses, including ground-launched surface-to-air missiles. This means allies would have to put an air-to-ground campaign in place to target and destroy enemy missiles and radar sites.
How a No-Fly Zone in Ukraine Could Make Matters Worse
A common theme is that no-fly zones are typically put in place against countries with relatively weak air forces. The weaker country usually has no option but to escalate the war, and must decide whether to risk losing its air force or back down.
Russia is a completely different ballgame, though. Russian fighter jets have equivalent capabilities to many American and NATO planes, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Russian Aerospace Forces, according to Flight International, have more than 850 fighter jets capable of air-to-air combat, including MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-27, Su-30, and Su-35 fighters.
Establishing a no-fly zone has two problems, explains Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “The first is the need to enforce it, which requires shooting down Russian aircraft and attacking their ground-based air defenses. That risks starting a broader war,” he tells Popular Mechanics. “The second problem is that it would not help very much. Most of the explosions happening in cities come from missiles and artillery, not from aircraft, so a no-fly zone would not stop them.”
Russia is not a weak country that will back down in the face of a no-fly zone. Furthermore, it has options to escalate the conflict, from launching tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles at NATO targets across Europe, to launching cross-border ground attacks into NATO countries bordering Ukraine and Europe.
A Russian invasion of the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania—all NATO countries—would trigger a corresponding move from NATO ground forces; Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty states that an attack on one member country is an attack on all of its members. NATO has only invoked Article 5 one time: following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The scope of conflict would quickly expand and soon there would be fighting on land, in the air, and at sea. Either side could even choose to expand the conflict into space, downing the other side’s satellites. The side that begins to lose might look at using tactical nuclear weapons to even the odds, and from there, the conflict is just a few escalations away from all-out nuclear warfare.
If this sounds a lot like World War III, that’s because that’s exactly what it could become.
Nearly the entire world wants to help Ukraine fend off Russia, but only a few countries and organizations have the military might to do something about it. But just because the United States, NATO, or the European Union have the ability to set up a no-fly zone doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. For now, the free world’s best bet is to continue to arm Ukraine, allowing it to fight back and defeat Russia’s flailing armies on its own terms.
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