Why Establishing a No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Would Be Very Dangerous and Costly

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has More cities are being bombarded with artillery or aerial bombing.To protect the civilians of Ukraine, there are increasing calls for Western countries to create a no fly zone above Ukraine. Russian advances are stopped.

The move would require a group of countries–potentially the U.S. and NATO allies—to declare that Russian military aircraft and missiles are no longer allowed in Ukrainian airspace.

From February 28, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the Ukrainian PresidentHe has asked the U.S. to create a no fly zone. He reported on Sunday that eight Russian missiles had struck Vinnytsia. “We repeat every day: ‘Close the sky over Ukraine!’” the Ukrainian leader said. “Close it for all Russian missiles, Russian combat aircraft, for all these terrorists. Make a humanitarian air zone—without rockets, without air bombs.”
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Many Western military officials and leaders have indicated support outside Ukraine for the possibility of taking some action. Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia told NBC News the option should not be taken “off the table.” The chair of the U.K. Parliament’s Defence Select Committee This is a repeat of the previous statementThe world must not abandon Ukraine, he said. A Reuters poll by IpsosOur survey also showed that 74% Americans supported an Air Exclusion Zone over Ukraine.

However, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Cold War-era alliance that was established to oppose the Soviet Union) has ruled out such a move, warning that it could result in a “full-fledged war in Europe.” A no-fly zone would put U.S. and other NATO pilots in a position of shooting down Russian planes and helicopters, and likely firing on ground forces. Experts are warning against this type of action The conflict could escalate dramatically—into cataclysmic nuclear war, at worst. The Pentagon has repeatedly dismissed calls for establishing a no-fly zone, citing President Joe Biden’s insistence that no combat forces will be sent to Ukraine.

Experts caution that the establishment and maintenance of a no flight zone over Ukraine would not be easy due to Russian determined resistance. The U.S. military has had free-reign of the skies in each war it’s been involved in since World War II, and American forces have established no-fly zones before. But unlike previous instances in Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Libya, which involved containing small and out-dated air forces, Russia has one of the largest air forces in the world—far larger than any in Europe—as well as advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

“Combat air patrols in [no-fly zones]You might be capable of handling a few violating aircrafts, but you won’t be able coordinate the deployment of many dozens, or even hundreds of planes that the Russians can deploy, if necessary, to take on the problem. [no-fly zones],” says Daniel Hegedüs, a visiting fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund.

Here’s what you need to know about no-fly zones, and why imposing one over Ukraine is unlikely at this time.

What is a no-fly zone and when have they been used?

S-400 defense systems arrive in Belarus
Russian Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesS-400 Russian air defense systems were seen at Brestsky, Belarus, on February 3, 2022.

In the context of wars and conflicts, a no-fly zone is imposed when a country—or group of countries—bar military and other aircraft from flying over a particular area. A no-fly zone can also be used to monitor ground enemies troops both within the airspace and beyond it. All unauthorised flights could be attacked or shot down.

No-fly zones can be used anywhere in the world. They have been around since 1990. In Iraq, a coalition led by the U.S. created one after the 1991 Gulf War. It was established to safeguard civilians against the aerial attacks of Saddam Hussein’s government. From 1993 through 1995, NATO prohibited any unauthorized aircraft from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s airspace during the Bosnian War. NATO enforced a no fly zone in Libya for protection of population centres from attack by the Libyan Government in 2011. Muammar al GaddafiDuring a popular uprising.

It would prove much harder to declare a no fly zone in Ukraine. Russia is also equipped with SAMs that can be used long distance. “Nearly all of the country of Ukraine is, in some way or another, under the umbrella of Russian surface-to-air missile capabilities,” a senior defense official said March 8.

The S-400 Triumf’s air defense system is capable of hitting targets up to 250 miles (roughly the distance between Belogrod in western Russia and Kyiv, Ukraine). Allies aircraft must establish air superiority in order to implement no-fly zones. This could mean striking SAM launchers within Russia.

What is the reason Ukraine wants a no fly zone?

Two weeks into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, civilians living in the northern and eastern parts of the country are being hit with around-the-clock airstrikes, artillery shelling and unguided rockets. The Russian military has now launched more than 600 missiles—many of them into population centers, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Ukrainians.

The U.S. and its allies have been bolstering Ukraine’s military firepower to aid in the fight against Russia. An American official in charge of the situation reported that CNNThe U.S., NATO members-states sent 17,000 antitank missiles to Ukraine and 2,000 Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Even Poland and the U.S. are looking into the possibility of an agreement. Polish MiG-29 fighter aircrafts given to Ukraine. Ukrainian pilots are already proficient in flying Soviet-era jets.

However, many military analysts fear that Ukraine’s tough resistance will eventually crumble under the might of Russia’s much larger military—which is among the most formidable in the world. Since 2008, Russia has increased its military modernization efforts. Latest data are from Report on the 2022 Military BalanceThe International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that Moscow is home to more than 9000 000 troops while Kyiv boasts 196,000 soldiers. According to IISS, Russia has 1,172 combat-capable aircraft while Ukraine only has 172.

This advantage has meant that Ukraine has struggled to prevent Russian missiles and aircraft from attacking its cities and military forces. Ukraine’s leaders have called on the United States and allies to create a no flight zone within Ukraine, to help protect civilians from Russian bombings.

For Alexander Benard, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute who has written on previous no-fly zones, imposing a zone covering the entire country “could do more harm than good, by expanding the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders” and involving countries that seek to enforce the no-fly zone in the war.

Zelenskyy has slammed the regional defense coalition’s stance, and said that the crisis in Ukraine requires Western leaders to act. In a video Sunday, he explained that if a no-fly zone cannot be imposed, or if they cannot receive defense aircraft, it means that, “you also want us to be slowly killed.”

Others are calling for a “limited” no-fly zone that would only protect humanitarian corridors for refugees fleeing Ukraine. PoliticoBiden received a request from several U.S. foreign and defense policy officers asking for the deployment American and NATO aircraft, with a pledge not to engage Russian troops.

What is it going to take for Ukraine to create a no fly zone?

Takeoff of a F35 stealth fighter jet
Foto Hosser/Picture Alliance/Getty ImagesOn February 22, 2022, a U.S. Air Force F-35 Fighter Jet takes off from Spangdahlem Air Base. Before the Russian invasion, U.S. forces sent stealth fighter planes to the Eifel airbase.

F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and F-15 Eagle fighter aircrafts of top quality would have to be flown into the conflict zone every day, as well as aerial refueling and refueling jets. The ground crews will need to be present nearby. It is possible that electronic attack aircraft will be used to disable and jam Russian radars in order to avoid detection or targeting.

Benard adds that no fly zones work only if NATO and U.S. allies can enforce them aggressively. “This means NATO would need to be ready to shoot down Russian planes that violate the no-fly zone,” he said.

That’s a prospect that NATO and the Soviet Union spent decades trying to avoid. Russia’s military may be smaller than that of its communist predecessor but it still has the greatest nuclear arsenal.

Also, to suppress Russian air power would need massive numbers of SAM-missiles and planes. The U.S. Air Force, which has more than 2200 fighters and bombers as well as attack aircraft and other air units, is by far the most powerful in the world. However, European forces are much smaller. The U.K.’s Royal Air Force has 234 combat-capable aircraft, while the air force of Poland, a NATO member that borders Ukraine, has 94.

NATO has rejected an no-fly zone.

Despite their desire to stop Russia’s invasion, NATO countries have decided that the risk of fighting against a nuclear-armed adversary is too great. Biden stressed this fact in his Speech at the State of Union: “Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.”

Putin earlier warned against imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine—he threatened that any third party that makes “any move” towards creating a no-fly zone will be considered a participant in the armed conflict. He made another warning. Insinuations of nuclear retaliationAny nation that becomes involved in the conflict should be repelled.

“We will consider them participants in hostilities that very second,” Putin said in a meeting with airline crew members on March 5. “Their membership in any organization will not matter then.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the decision to provide military support to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia, instead of deploying NATO forces was “painful.”

“We understand the desperation,” said Stoltenberg on March 4. “But we also believe that if we did that, we’ll end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe, involving many more countries, and causing much more human suffering.

Even if a NATO-Russia confrontation over a no-fly zone did not escalate into a nuclear exchange, such a move would put NATO countries at risk of retaliation, says Benard: “It is more likely that conventional warfare would spill across Ukraine’s borders into neighboring countries that are providing operational support for the no-fly zone.

—With reporting by W.J. Hennigan/Washington


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