On the morning of March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the US Congress. Through an interpreter, he described the current reality of life in his invaded country: âRussia has turned the skies of Ukraine into a source of death for thousands of people. Russian troops have already fired nearly 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs, they are using drones to kill us with precision.
Zelenskyy requested help via a humanitarian no-fly zone. âIs it asking a lot, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is that too much to ask?”
The answer is not so simple.
The phrase “no-fly zone” is a friendly term for a complex orchestration of tactics and actions. To understand Zelenskyy’s request and why he immediately followed it with a lower-stakes alternative, it helps to first understand what a no-fly zone entails.
In a 2013 RAND Corporation study, Karl P. Mueller defines a no-fly zone as “a policy under which an outside actor openly prohibits all or part of aircraft flights over a specified territory” , either by intercepting and directing hostile planes and helicopters out of the closed sky or shooting down such planes if they do not comply.
This area is distinct from interceptions over a nation’s own or allied airspace, in which a sovereign right to intercept is assumed or granted. It is also an explicit affirmation of the right to airspace where it would not normally exist, as in the airspace of a country in civil war, for example. And unlike a negotiated agreement where multiple countries agree not to fly military aircraft over the same area, a no-fly zone assumes the ability and willingness of the faction imposing it to actually shoot down the plane that violates it.
In short: asking a country to create a no-fly zone is asking it to go to war.
While planes have been shooting other planes for more than a century, using an air force directly against another country is actually less complicated than setting up a no-fly zone. This is because, writes Mueller, intercepting a flight in a no-fly zone requires an air force capable of monitoring the entire area in real time, sending fighters to intercept planes when they violate the area, and to do so with overwhelming force against the nation. whose planes are intercepted.
Ukraine in crisis
This story is part of a 10-part series on nuclear risk, military technology and the future of warfare in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Even limited to a country’s entire airspace, a no-fly zone is a promise to identify and then attack hostile aircraft, without further aggravating the war. In the case of Ukraine, this could be limited to simply finding and shooting down Russian helicopters and planes over the country, which means using sensors to find these vehicles in flight, and then coordinating with patrol planes. to shoot down these vehicles.
The United States, sometimes with allies, has imposed no-fly zones a few times, beginning with a first use over Iraq in 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War. Subsequently declared no-fly zones followed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 (enforced by NATO from 1993), Kosovo in 1999 and Libya in 2011. This intervention in Libya, also undertaken by the NATO, deserves special attention, as this no-fly zone was considered to have decisively altered the balance of the war and led to the death of the authoritarian Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
âWithout NATO intervention, therefore, the rebellion and civil war in Libya â and the resulting endangerment of civilians â would likely have ended by the end of March 2011, less than six weeks into the conflict,” said political scientist Alan Kuperman.
The Biden administration has always ruled out the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as well as directly transferring fighter jets into the country, citing the risk of escalation with Russia and its nuclear arsenal. None of the historic no-fly zones undertaken by the United States were established against nuclear-armed countries or nuclear-armed allies who flew in support of the targeted country.
When the United States used aircraft for strikes against groups like ISIS during the Syrian Civil War, it actively coordinated with Russia, which operated aircraft to support the Assad government in Syria. A memorandum of understanding between the United States and Russia, as authors Andrew S. Weiss and Nicole Ng note, sets out terms for “aviation security protocols, the use of specific communication frequencies, and the establishment of of a – ground operational communication line. This process is known as “deconfliction” and has reduced but not eliminated the risk of two air forces operating in the same sky.
In Ukraine, two air forces are still fighting over the skies. Russia, which continues to use planes and helicopters in its attack, did not stop the Ukrainian Air Force from flying. Ukraine, which retains some combat aircraft and some ability to fly these aircraft, cannot claim the same freedom of flight as before the war. Confusing the two armies are surface-to-air missiles, which allow soldiers on foot, in vehicles, or at stationary weapon stations to destroy aircraft.
Some of these weapons, such as man-portable anti-aircraft missiles, can hit helicopters or planes flying only at low altitude. A Strela missile, the type that was in Ukraine’s inventory before the invasion, can hit planes flying at less than 10,000 feet and at a range of up to 2.6 miles. Other more powerful systems, such as the Soviet-developed S-300, destroy aircraft at higher altitudes and greater distances. The S-300 is a truck that carries large anti-aircraft missiles. Its range varies depending on the missiles it uses, with some missiles having a ceiling of 98,000 feet and a range of 55 miles.
“If this [no-fly zone] It’s too much to ask, we offer an alternative,â Zelenskyy told Congress. “You know what kind of defense systems we need, S-300 and other similar systems.”
Turning to anti-aircraft missiles is not the same response to air strikes as the arrival of one or more friendly air forces in the country, as it ignores the broader role of other aircraft in surveillance of the sky and direction of interceptions. What the missiles offer, instead, is a way for the Ukrainian military to challenge its own airspace by “imposing costs” on an invading air force to protect people, in uniform and civilians, from bomber, fighter and helicopter attacks.
âI have a dream, these words are known to each of you today,â Zelenskyy continued. âI can say that I have a need. I have to protect our sky.
By asking for planes but offering to settle for missiles, Zelenskyy may have settled for less than his dream. In doing so, he paved a way for Ukraine to try to escape a nightmare.
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