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A Ukrainian No-fly Zone is Unequivocally a Recipe for World War III

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

March 12, 2022

So, suddenly, there’s a new idea for a Ukraine no-fly zone. Suddenly Joe Biden wants one, and 42 Republican members of the U.S. House agree with him. And of course, there the plethora of the ‘never ending wars’ neocon subject matter experts claiming six-ways to Sunday justifications for a no-fly zone. Be it emotional, hysterical, agenda-driven they have flooded the airwaves demanding that a no-fly zone is necessary. Let provide the “real why” it doesn’t work and why it won’t work any better than any option offered. Remember, we are dealing with Russia. And sorry to disappoint you, but I am sorry to say -- even a “limited” no-fly zone is a bad idea.

Since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine have been hampered by one big problem. That problem is that implementing and enforcing a no-fly zone would no doubt likely result in the shooting at Russian aircraft and carry the significant risk of directly leading to a nuclear exchange. This argument until earlier this week carried the day in the White House, which has repeatedly ruled out a no-fly zone, or any other direct intervention in the war. However, things are different Congress, to include both houses, as well as including the warmongering Neocon Establishment Republicans. And as the war grinds on and casualties pile up, calls for a no-fly zone have grown, including a number of influential circles on both sides of the aisle.

The basic idea would be to deploy NATO assets to prevent Russian combat jets and helicopters from flying over certain parts of Ukraine to allow for refugee evacuation and the provision of humanitarian aid. Calls for a limited no-fly zone suffer from the same basic problem as a broader campaign: You can’t implement one without greatly heightening the risk of nuclear escalation.

There are really only two reasons (for proposing this): They have no idea what they’re talking about or they’re posturing. Moreover, there is no kind of no-fly zone — limited or otherwise — that would address the humanitarian crisis motivating such calls. Russia’s primary method of bombarding civilian-populated areas in this war has been artillery, not aircraft — which means that a Western intervention focused on shooting down planes would either prove ineffective or else escalate to something even more dangerous.

Nevertheless, the calls for a no-fly zone keep coming anyway: relics from prior wars waged under unquestionable American supremacy, unburdened by the prospect of great-power war and nuclear escalation.

Before I explain what a limited no-fly zone is, let me explain what it is not. In no way does it remain “limited.” There’s really no such thing. Period.

So, what exactly is a no-fly zone? No-fly zones are a commitment to patrol, combat patrol – that’s aggressive, because, if necessary, it means shooting down military aircraft that fly in the declared “no-fly zone” area, which was claimed for the purpose of protecting civilians.

In Ukraine, which would mean the U.S. and its NATO allies sending in combat jets to patrol Ukraine’s skies — and being willing to shoot down any Russian aircraft, combat aircraft that enter into the designated protected airspace. Since Russian aircraft are in fact directly and deliberately flying combat missions in Ukraine and show no signs of stopping, any no-fly zone puts us on a direct path to a shooting war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

However, to the proponents of “Limited no-fly zones” the “limited” aspect, are nothing but a notional claim and narrative that are supposed to be a way around this problem. They believe that by only operating in certain areas of Ukraine, they in theory believe this limits the risk that the U.S. and NATO would need to fire on Russian aircraft to enforce their mandate can be contained, maintained and controlled without any escalation whatsoever.

To this end, they argue that the U.S. and its allies should only commit to protecting “humanitarian corridors” — defined by slices of Ukrainian territory that Moscow and Kiev have designated as routes for civilian evacuation and aid provision. Of course, history notes that such humanitarian corridors were employed in the Syrian civil war but were frequently violated by Syria and its Russian allies; just this past week, Ukraine has already accused Russian forces of attacking designated humanitarian areas in the current conflict. Also, understand we are not talking about a limited conflict area, Syria where Moscow had limited deployed forces, we are dealing with Russia directly which borders and neighbors Ukraine.

At the same time, the proponents for a no-fly zone, limited or not, argue that a NATO commitment to protect those corridors would not lead to direct fighting with Russia, but would effectively deter the Russians from attacking them again. There is definitely a degree of fantasy at play in their logic and a significant degree of denial. They in fact noted in a letter this week that; “What we seek is the deployment of American and NATO aircraft not in search of confrontation with Russia, but to avert and deter Russian bombardment that would result in massive loss of Ukrainian lives.”

Unfortunately, there are some dire problems with this logic. First, it inflates the deterrent power of a no-fly zone. The assumption that Russia would be deterred from attacking these areas by a NATO presence flies in the face of past experience. Looking to past history, understand, after NATO imposed an operational no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1993, its jets had to shoot down Bosnian Serb aircraft that flew into the protected airspace. It is hard to imagine that President Putin’s Russia is significantly more afraid of confronting NATO than the vastly inferior Bosnian Serb forces. Let me note here that I will discuss, the historical precedence of the success and failures of no-fly zones, later in this article.

Secondly, setting aside shootdowns of Russian planes, securing even a “limited” no-fly zone would likely require NATO to go on offense. There are complicated and complex factors at play. Realize, it is not just dealing with Russian combat aircraft. It is also dealing with deployed mobile Russian air defense and anti-aircraft batteries in Belarus and from inside Russia’s sovereign border that have enough range to cover the entirety of Ukrainian airspace. Unless NATO pilots wanted to fly with the constant fear of being shot down, they would need to take those air defense sights and positions out. Obviously, attacking Russian territory, like shooting down their aircraft, is of course, an “act of war” on Russia.

Third, a no-fly zone would in fact do relatively little to protect Ukrainian civilians. One of the more striking features of the Ukraine conflict to date has been the surprisingly limited role of Russia’s air force, which has flown only questionably effective missions in Ukrainian airspace, mainly against military and high priority government targets. While Russia has bombarded civilian-populated areas, it has primarily done so using ground-based artillery rather than airstrikes. A no-fly zone might not even solve the crisis of Ukrainian civilians being pummeled by Russian ground forces. Again, all of these factors cast doubt on the desirability of any no-fly zone, limited or not.

Further, let me point out that if the mission stays restricted to simply denying Russia’s ability to fly in Ukrainian air space, it would almost certainly guarantee clashes with Russian aircraft and air defenses without even stopping the killing of civilians. Moreover, what could follow from that would be risky “mission creep” … remember that term? It applies, in No-Fly Zone operations – in fact, it’s open ended exclusively. We all know how that seems to come into play with the globalist neocons at the helm. Certainly, the continued mass deaths could create significant pressure on the U.S. and NATO to target Russian artillery and ground forces, similar to the way that a 2011 limited no-fly zone in Libya swiftly escalated to a regime-change killing field operation that ultimately toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s government, as Hillary Clinton claimed, “... we came, we saw, he died …” and then came Benghazi.

Here's the facts folks. There is, in short, no such thing as a “limited” no-fly zone in Ukraine. Either NATO is using its forces to deny airspace to Russian jets, or it is not. And if the U.S. and its allies engage in such a mission, the logic of the mission inevitably militates toward war with Russia -- with all of the risks of nuclear escalation that entails.

So, if even a limited no-fly zone is obviously dangerous, why are some leading experts and members of Congress, both the House and Senate entertaining it? For one, there’s no denying that the situation in Ukraine is horrible. The suffering on the ground and the appeals for intervention from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who just desperately wants NATO to help protect his country from a Russian invasion -- have struck a chord with the politicos and their lap dog pundits and talking heads and the so-called subject matter experts.

However, the no-fly zone’s appeal in Washington is grounded in a particular post-Cold War instinct. There are the two groups of a number of American foreign policy thinkers in DC who suffer from a mentality where they are afflicted with a mindset developed in the post-Cold War where they advocate policies feasible against weak adversaries, they have ignored China and of course Russia as preeminent superpowers. In fact, they have become drunk on power after the fall of Russia in the Cold War. They have moved in a director and of a belief convinced that the U.S. could and should intervene in faraway conflicts to protect civilians and enforce its vision of global order. This led to campaigns shaped by liberal interventionism and the war on terror, such as the missions to stop mass killings in Kosovo, toppling Saddam Hussein, and Afghanistan.

They have postulated the kind of wars that have preoccupied America for most of the post-Cold War period, introducing policies like air policing and no-fly zone, which in their minds made a certain kind of sense. Given the relatively rudimentary air forces and defenses of America’s opponents we’ve dealt with over the last 30-years -- it was not difficult for U.S. airpower to seize control over the skies with few major risks. The question was not whether the United States could accomplish this goal, but whether it should. Of course, lets realize what’s at stake for the out-of-control Globalist neocons, it’s really all about a “color-revolution and subsequent regime change in Moscow” – we know that! Its just one critical element of the total war against the Russian people in hope they rise-up against and takedown Putin.

That said, when faced with a nuclear-armed major power, be it a rising China or even a militarily inferior Russia, unfortunately, the low-cost logic behind a no-fly zone doesn’t apply. The military ignorant Mitt Romney’s of the world have no concept of what is really at stake … that American aircraft would have to contend with serious air defenses; let alone realizing that regime change operations run a major risk of triggering nuclear annihilation.

With the “could” question largely foreclosed for these reasons; the “should” question no longer even comes into play. Yet Americans afflicted with the current humanitarian save the children mindset do not recognize this reality. They are still operating in a world of ‘shoulds’, rather than ‘coulds,’ one where the United States really can “do something” in the major conflicts of the day without risking unacceptable consequences. This is not a question of morality versus interests, as foreign policy choices are so frequently framed. There is no coherent moral view in which it would be better to stop Russian jets from bombing Kiev while significantly raising the risk of a nuclear war.

Contrary to what so many of the Globalist Establishment mindset 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 combat 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. Again, no-fly zones are offensive combat operations. Period.

So, as I previously noted, I would address the historical perspective of the success and failures of no-fly zones in the post-World War II period where U.S. and allied forces were involved.

First, the question is, why don’t most people get it? Well, part of the reason that no-fly zones keep being brought up as solutions is that the nature of airpower is so poorly understood. The advocates have trumpeted airpower as a strategic and tactical shortcut for nearly a century. They claim airpower is a way to win battles and even wars without the messy complications inherent in ground operations and in other forms military arms and warfare.

After the rise of airpower in World War II, the idea of no-fly zones was invigorated by the lopsided victory in 1991’s “Operation Desert Storm” and propagated through repeated limited military air-centric actions going forward. 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.

Secondly, 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 by-product of a generation of low-intensity conflict and low-intensity operations has only reinforced this evolving political infatuation with two pillars of what we term political airpower: those being; airstrikes and no-fly zones. While each can be effective, neither is a shortcut or an end-run around a need for a joint-combined comprehensive strategy -- both are merely elements of one.

In evaluating the history of the “No-Fly Zone” it is important to understand the key objective for complete success of a no-fly zone is “air superiority” – this essentially means all out conflict. With a superpower like Putin and Russia, which means an “escalation.”

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 in southern Iraq 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 operational 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. During these operations, U.S. forces were in direct conflict with Iraqi forces.

Further, in the southern part of Iraq, “Operation 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. Most are totally unaware of that operation.

Likewise, in the Balkans (the former Communist Yugoslavia) from 1993-1995, “Operation Deny Flight” in Bosnia 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. Part of the U.S. Air Forces key principle of its air doctrine is first to “gain and maintain air superiority” -- which gives ground forces the freedom from attack from enemy combat air assets, and thus provides for the freedom to attack. However, the difference between the U.S. doctrine and principles of “air superiority” and a “no-fly zone” is that the latter tends to emerge as a political policy tool to protect vulnerable populations -- not a military tool to achieve operational military objectives and operational ends to conflict. 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 all threats to air operations from the ground.”

As previously discussed, the no-fly zone was born in a post-Cold War era when the U.S. possessed such a lopsided military advantage over its opponents 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 prior to World War II and or post-World War II to establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone against any meaningful resistance, and meaningful resistance doesn’t simply mean enemy fighters anymore. In the realm of air warfare wherein the capability and lethality of modern proliferated Russian or Chinese air defenses and offensive air capabilities easily trumps the threat from fighters, a no-fly zone must prioritize all negating threats to friendly aircraft first to be successful.

Further, again, looking back, “Operation Allied Force,” during March-June 1999 the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro, provides a glimpse of the magnitude of what this endeavor might entail and shows that this is much more difficult than the casual armchair strategist or military amateur like Mitt Romney or the political ‘no it all’s’ like Nancy Pelosi realizes. Operational and situation awareness is paramount, it was then, and it is even more so now. During the 1999 operation, U.S. military planners knew of around 45 surface-to-air missile systems in a theater of operations the size of southern New England, supported by a smattering of 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns and ubiquitous SA-7 and SA-9 (Russian-made) heat-seeking missiles. The newest system, the SA-6, was already 30-year-old technology at the time.

Understand, that the air threat posed by the Serbian Air Force was minimal, and it was rapidly reduced by U.S. Air Force F-15s and Dutch F-16s on those rare occasions when a Serbian MiG-29 took flight. During Operation Allied Force, to maintain freedom of maneuver during the 78-day campaign, 743 high-speed anti-radiation missiles were fired by U.S. and NATO aircraft against an obsolescent but credible missile threats. Combined with robust compilation of electronic jamming missions, 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 on the ground manning those radar sites.

Then there is the “logistics” aspect. By this I mean what is actually needed and involved to carry out a no-fly zone. It’s NOT just transferring Polish Mig-29’s as it being pushed by our Congress and the armed chair political expert wannabe’s. Despite the bold effort put forth during the Allied Force operations, the U.S. Air Force lost two aircraft (an F-117 and F-16) to those threats, and a handful of other aircraft sustained damage. The suppression of enemy air defense effort was effective at forcing air defenders to keep their heads down while F-15 and F-16 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. In addition, Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers, Spanish and U.S. Navy F-18s, and Air Force F-16CMs (counter measure aircraft) would suppress enemy air defenses by jamming radars and shooting anti-radiation missiles, while F-15Es and F-16CGs attacked the missile batteries with much heavier ordnance, often in the 2,000-pound ordnance class -- sufficient to turn a missile battery and its associated radar system into finely distributed metal scraps and debris.

In the end, as was critically noted, despite a world-class air force’s best effort against a second-rate defense, the U.S. 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 final assessment that should and must be addressed is that in both cases, Iraq and the Balkans, they were not a world superpower, i.e., “Russia.”

Folks, here’s the reality -- the success of a no-fly zone relies on the premise of conventional deterrence backed by the resolve to swiftly and ferociously enforce, again understand ferociously enforce it -- if challenged. It will at first it will gradually increase and extend in intensity into all out military operations that will then rapidly escalate, particularly against an adversary like Russia.

Attempting this today against a nation like Russia with the massive capabilities of artillery, man-portable air defense systems, and/or advanced surface-to-air missiles immediately suggests and unequivocally indicates that a no-fly zone is neither operationally feasible, nor is it politically appetizing at all to those of us who actually understand the operational and strategic requirements, the requirements, the objectives, the strategy and concept of no-fly zones, and the actual logistics and what it brings to bare. There are horrific consequences, multiple-level second, third and forth order affects, and a certainly a degree of complex escalatory situations that in this specific case ignite World War III.

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 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.

As of this weekend, in Ukraine, the Russian air defense threat does not appear to have materialized against Ukrainian aircraft, at least in terms of ground-based threat. That does not in any way mean there is not any or there is not a 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 dangerous and powerful fascination of a No-Fly Zone ignores the likelihood of escalation. 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, like Washington, DC, the no-fly zone might seem like a somewhat impersonal option for the employment of military force, centered around a humanitarian justification. The reality is that effective enforcement involves flying over territory where fighting is occurring and enforcing a no-fly zone which of course means the “intent to kill” and destroy 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, a political sham for eventually regime change. 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 draw in the U.S. and NATO as co-belligerents 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 both the United States and its NATO allies -- in deed, WW-III.

Colonel Jim Waurishuk, USAF (Ret.) 30+ year career Special Reconnaissance and Senior Strategic and Special Mission Intelligence Officer, White House NSC Staff, Deputy Dir. Intelligence U.S. CENTCOM, currently Chairman of the Hillsborough County (Tampa) FL.

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