As the world sees the impact of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and particularly the wanton slaughter of civilians by Russian forces, European and American audiences are searching for a way to put additional pressure on Russia to end the war. Sanctions, despite their undeniable effect on the Russian economy, are insufficiently instantaneous and emotionally unsatisfying. And so like the title monsters in a bad zombie movie, the no-fly zone has become the idea that will not die. In this fantasy story, the no-fly zone has become a method of mitigating the effects on civilians while supporters of the idea cling to the pretense that it “might” not escalate or, in one particularly inexplicable falsehood, that “a no-fly zone would not make NATO a direct combatant.” Views like these are a dangerous fantasy, and serve only to obscure the three central facts about a no-fly zone option in Ukraine: a no-fly zone is inherently escalatory, it will have little effect in protecting Ukrainian civilians from attack, and it is likely to be ineffective militarily. Instead, the no-fly zone is about the worst way for NATO to enter the war on Ukraine’s side, delivering a risky and poorly matched airpower option in place of an appropriate use of airpower to smash adversary combat capabilities.
As Mike Benitez and I laid out two weeks ago, a no-fly zone operation is a use of airpower in which the US or NATO would inform the Russians that they will no longer be allowed to employ airpower over a specified geographic area. There is no bluff—a no-fly zone will and must be enforced, and that includes lethal force employed against Russian aircraft without warning. It also includes the necessary suppression of air defenses that could fire on NATO aircraft in the zone, even if those air defenses are outside Ukraine (which most of them are). No-fly zones are not peacekeeping operations. They are combat operations against a defined adversary and they are inherently escalatory—in this case they would signal a transition from a proxy war where NATO is only supplying weapons to the defending side to a war where NATO air assets are killing Russian soldiers and aviators. While much of the press tends to shy away from the bald reality that somehow airpower operations are a less damaging form of warfare, combat operations are all about killing people and destroying things, and airpower applications are no exception. I have personally been responsible for the deaths of Iraqi air defense officers in Iraq (one account can be read and watched here) under the auspices of Operation Northern Watch. It is completely fallacious to assert that a no-fly zone will not lead to an expanded conflict; by definition the establishment of a no-fly zone deliberately and unambiguously expands the conflict. There are no nuances—calls for a “humanitarian” no-fly zone are merely obscuring the reality by changing the name. All former no-fly zones were established for humanitarian reasons and they all involved the use of lethal force without warning.
Adding to the pile of reasons not to consider a no-fly zone is that it would clearly be ineffective at preventing civilian deaths. The Russian employment of airpower has not been the primary attack method against civilian targets, although the Russians’ reliance on imprecise air attacks using nonprecision munitions against civilian targets has certainly caused civilian casualties. The primary method of destruction employed by the Russians is artillery, long a staple of Russian military action and about the only part of the Russian army that is working well. Russian mechanized columns and supply lines are being hammered by Ukrainian forces using small-unit tactics and advanced weapons, leaving artillery as the primary source of Russian lethal fires. Indeed, this is typical Russian doctrine—in the Russian Ground Forces, artillery is the supported branch, meaning that the armor and infantry are there to support the artillery, not the other way around (as with most of NATO). If one can imagine a magic condition under which the Russians do not fly combat missions over Ukraine, civilian casualties would continue largely unabated because those deaths and injuries are not caused by airpower and cannot be interdicted by counterair methods. The Russians rely heavily on tube and rocket artillery, including long-range rocket artillery fired from Russian soil.
With that in mind, it should become clear that a no-fly zone would be ineffective in achieving the goal for which it was invented—protecting civilians from threat of attack. In Iraq and Bosnia, the adversary had no other practical method of attacking civilian targets at range—in Ukraine the Russians clearly do. It would also be a clear case of airpower malpractice, akin to the protective reaction raids in Vietnam, where fighter escorts attacked individual air defense batteries, but only after they had been fired upon. As it is, on the second day of the war, a Russian S-400 bagged a Ukrainian Su-27 flying over Kiev—a shot taken from neighboring Belarus at a range of around 150 nautical miles. Essentially, the enforcement of a no-fly zone would place NATO aviators in a position where they were surrounded by air defenses that can reach out and touch them from the north and south, completely independently of any fighters the Russians might throw into the fight. That threat condition can lead to one of only two things: attacks on those air defense batteries or unnecessary loss of NATO aircraft and aviators who lacked the ability or authority to target assets that put them under threat.
One of the points that might get missed in the advocacy of a no-fly zone is the implications for the air bases involved. If combat missions against Russian assets are flown from NATO air bases, those air bases are immediately subject to Russian attack, and Russian operational doctrine makes it clear that long-range aviation and rocket forces will target those bases, along with their supply lines, ammunition and fuel stores, and command-and-control nodes. Ironically, Russian attacks on these targets would be completely in keeping with international law, as bases from which combat operations are launched are subject to legitimate attack.
While I don’t in any way advocate this step, the most appropriate and effective use of airpower against Russian assets in and around Ukraine would be to use the full range of NATO airpower in a deliberately constructed air campaign intended to destroy Russian forces’ combat capabilities, impair their logistics, attrit their forces in the field, and shatter their ability to deliver long-range fired on demand. That would be equally escalatory in that it would bring NATO into a war against Russia, but in a form where the military effects would be immediate, noticeable, and potentially decisive against a slow-moving force at the end of tenuous supply lines. In other words, if NATO elected to escalate, it should escalate smartly. Legally, there is no difference between the different flavors of combat operation and if NATO airpower is applied against Russia, the alliance should choose the option with the greatest chance of success.
At the end of the day, there is no credible way to assert that the no-fly zone is an option that is only potentially escalatory or that it would be effective in protecting Ukrainian civilians from attacks. As I pointed out during a recent episode of the Modern War Institute podcast, the establishment of a no-fly zone has only two possible outcomes. Either NATO fires the first shot at a Russian target in an expanded European war, or the Russians fire the first shot at a NATO target in an expanded European war. All other expectations are unrealistic, created by a misunderstanding of the available airpower options.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha (US Air Force, retired) 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 ten combat deployments. He flew in Operations Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, and Northern Watch, and in no-fly zone operations in Bosnia after Operation Deliberate Force.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles at Łask Air Base, Poland, February 28, 2022 (credit: Tech. Sgt. Jacob Albers, US Air Force)
Thank you Mike. It's hard to disagree with you assessments. That being said, I can't help but think we could have deployed more options, definitely not a no-fly zone by the way, a year ago when Putin first made rumblings of invasion. If we were to use the Soviet Union and China as examples, we could look at how they engaged themselves to help North Vietnam during our air attacks against that nation. They armed the North Vietnamese, and they overtly resupplied them with their commercial shipping dominating the landscape of the harbor of Hai Phong. The rule seemed to be to act quickly, because the situation simply became untenable with time.
A no fly zone in certain areas would lighten the pressure on Ukrainian forces. The more privileged Russian units like Kadyrov's fighters will enjoy Russian air cover and likely move with it. Most of the Ukrainian air strikes will have been against less covered (or cared about) forward units so far. With attritional factors effecting both sides and forces from Belarus moving imminently to close Western Supply routes this is quite critical. Ukraine is already being sealed off by the sea. Russian forces are highly relying on indiscriminate airstrikes and long artillery strikes. Preventing at least air penetration will also help stop attacks against theatres and maternity hospitals sheltering civilians.
Yes, any "No Fly Zone" will be indeed escalatory and risk retalliation; however, I think that the DoD and NATO aren't seeing their true options here in that they're thinking manned fighters with precious pilots.
What could be a future option is a "No Fly Zone" enforced by drones first and foremost. Drones are indeed vulnerable to manned supersonic fighters and SAMs and SHORADS, but they will form a layer of air defense, CAS, and a "Show of Force" even if not supersonic or super-threatening.
MQ-9 UAVs are unmanned, but propeller-driven, they're slow and cannot dogfight. But they can carry Stingers and perhaps Sidewinder missiles, just that they're not really equipped to be aerial combatant drones. So what is?
The UCAV needs to come forward and most drones are now slow ISR drones. The XQ-58A with its 2,550 mile range is a prime solution, but with its under 600-pound internal payload, it can only carry a single 335-pound AIM-120 AMRAAM and perhaps a couple of Sidewinders although it flies very close to Mach 1. None of the unmanned drones are supersonic…except one.
The QF-16 can be an unmanned supersonic fighter drone that is armed with AAMs and has a radar. Based on an outdated and retrofitted F-16A/B, this drone can bust supersonic speeds, pull 9Gs, and still carry five hardpoints for AAMs (Sidewinders AND AIM-120s), and still be remotely piloted. But only six were converted so far to QF-16s. The DoD has a lot of mothballed F-16A/Bs sitting in the desert that it can convert and equip as dogfighters with "decent" radars and semi-outdated technologies to act as some form of aerial deterrence and also be expendable and not super-costly to lose. They can also be fitted with semi-outdated "good enough" jammers and cyber warfare by using older systems pulled from frontline fighters and placed back on the storage shelves because they're no longer state-of-the-art.
Just because the US DoD and NATO don't want to risk their manned fighters and pilots to enforce a "No Fly Zone" and draw the West into the Ukrainian conflict doesn't mean that the threat of more "Tools in the toolbox" should not exist. And just because there aren't any UCAVs at the moment should not detract from the future threat that, "Yes, we HAVE armed UCAVs and we're prepared to use them!" One cannot bluff the fact that the Western UCAV is in its infancy when the truthful fact is that the West just didn't buy them or enough of them because the manned-unmanned teaming aerial drone has been tested for 17 years already.
Dear Colonel Pietrucha, I have read with great interest your excellent essays here and elsewhere. I live in Taiwan and would be honored and delighted to be in contact with you. Thank you very much for your service and for sharing your insights.