How No-fly Zones Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger

A Libyan man fires his pistol in the air during a celebratory rally, after the United Nations approved a no-fly zone over the country on March 18, 2011. See more gun pictures.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After the airplane was invented, it only took a few decades for the world's despots to realize how air power could be used to wipe out rebels and/or terrorize civilian populations. The most chilling early example was the Spanish fascists' 1937 attack on the town of Guernica, the cultural capital of the democracy-supporting Basques. In a three-hour-long onslaught, bombers and fighter aircraft dumped 100,000 pounds of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the town, reducing it to rubble, and strafed inhabitants as they tried to escape. Some 1,600 people were killed or wounded. The world responded with horror and outrage, but the international organizations of the time were too weak and unprepared to stop further bloodshed [source: PBS].

Today, however, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have a tool to prevent such aerial atrocities. Starting in the early 1990s, international military coalitions began imposing no-fly zones. A no-fly zone is an area within a nation in the midst of a civil war or rebellion, in which an oppressive regime's air forces are banned, preventing that regime from attacking rebel forces and civilians.


No-fly zones, which have been declared in Iraq and the Balkans in the 1990s and most recently in Libya, have always been controversial. They require an international organization to enter a sovereign nation, overrule the authority of a legally recognized government, and, at least to a degree, to take sides in an internal conflict. To make a no-fly zone effective, the interveners have to be willing and prepared to confront a rogue regime's aircraft if they violate the ban, and to either engage them in aerial combat or shoot them down with land- or ship-based antiaircraft missiles. That entails the risk that coalition planes may be shot down, and their crews captured or killed. To protect themselves and make the ban more effective, interveners usually must also attack and destroy a regime's airfields, radar installations and anti-aircraft weaponry. That level of force can make a humanitarian intervention start to look more and more like the opening salvo in a strange, problematic sort of war -- one in which one side is constrained by the limits of its mandate from achieving victory.

In this article, we'll look at what it requires to impose a no-fly zone, and whether no-fly zones are effective at their intended goal. But first, let's discuss when, where and why no-fly zones are needed.


The Origins of the No-fly Zone

In spring 1991, the United States and allies expelled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces from neighboring Kuwait. Iraq's long-oppressed Kurdish minority, encouraged by American radio broadcasts, staged a revolt in northern Iraq. In response, Saddam sent helicopter gunships armed with napalm and chemical weapons to rout the rebels. Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians fled the brutal onslaught, and became trapped on barren hillsides near the Turkish border without food or water. U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his European allies found themselves in an agonizing situation. They were reluctant to remove Saddam from power, but didn't want to see a humanitarian disaster they'd inadvertently instigated [source:].

Instead, they hit upon a solution. In April 1991, the U.N. passed another resolution condemning Hussein's repression of the Kurds and called upon member nations to assist in relief efforts. U.S., British and French air forces moved in and launched a massive supply and rescue operation. The resolution warned Hussein not to interfere with relief efforts, and the allies used that authority to declare what may have been the first no-fly zone in history -- a 19,000-square-mile (49,209-square-kilometer) area north of the 36th parallel. In 1992, a second no-fly zone was imposed south of the 32nd parallel, to protect Shi'ite Muslims who had also rebelled. When Saddam violated the no-fly zones, the coalition forces punished those infractions with force -- either by shooting down Iraqi regime aircraft, or by destroying Iraqi military targets with missiles. The ban continued until the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam in 2003 [source: BBC News].


The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the bloodshed that resulted, led NATO forces to impose another U.N.-authorized no-fly zone in 1993 over the breakaway region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Operation Deny Flight was intended to block Bosnian Serbs, who controlled virtually all the military aircraft in the region, from attacking their Muslim neighbors from the air. The mission later was expanded, and NATO attacked Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft missile installations, artillery and armor in an effort to compel them to stop their aggression [source: Keating,].

After a popular rebellion erupted against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the spring of 2011, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1973, which banned all flights in Libyan airspace and authorized U.N. members to act individually or as a group to take "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians [source:]. We'll discuss that resolution on the next page.


How No-fly Zones Are Created

A French air force fighter jet refuels with a Boeing refueling tanker over the Mediterranean sea during the no-fly zone operation "Harmattan" in the critical region on Benghazi, in April 2011.
A French air force fighter jet refuels with a Boeing refueling tanker over the Mediterranean sea during the no-fly zone operation "Harmattan" in the critical region on Benghazi, in April 2011.
Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

Because the concept of no-fly zones is so new -- counting Libya, they've only been imposed in three conflicts -- and the duration and objectives have varied so much, there isn't yet a standard playbook for how to set up and enforce such a ban.

The legal authority for creating no-fly zones comes from Chapter 7, Article 42 of the U.N. Charter, which states that if diplomacy isn't able to resolve a threat to international peace, the U.N. may authorize "demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea or land forces" [source:]. Thus, the first step is obtaining a mandate from the 15-member U.N. Security Council. That usually requires some deft diplomacy, since any of the five permanent members -- the United States, China, Russia, the U.K. and France -- can block the action with a veto. In the case of the Libyan no-fly zone, China and Russia opposed the plan but were persuaded by advocates to abstain from the vote [source:].


The U.N. resolution that imposed the Libyan no-fly zone lays out only the most basic parameters. It bans any flights in Libyan airspace, except for humanitarian missions to deliver medical supplies and food or to evacuate foreign nationals from the conflict area. It also authorizes member states to enforce the ban, provided that they notify the U.N. and report back on a monthly basis to detail their actions and provide information on any violations of the ban. United Nations members are also authorized to deny permission to any aircraft to take off from, land in or overfly their own airspace, if they have reason to suspect that a plane is transporting weapons or mercenaries to Libya [source:].

Once the U.N. has given permission, someone actually has to agree to organize and enforce the flight ban. In Libya, after additional negotiation between NATO ambassadors from various member countries and conference calls that included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from the U.K., France and Turkey, NATO agreed to take on the jobs [source: Labott and Newton].

One reason that imposing no-fly zones is so complicated is that the U.N. and the countries who'll provide aircraft, missiles and personnel have to agree on rules of engagement (RoEs), which spell out, among other things, when and how to confront possible violators, how much force can be used against them, and who authorizes taking action in such situations. We'll discuss the RoEs for no-fly zones and how they're carried out in the next section.


How to Keep Aircraft Out of the Sky

Exactly which measures an international coalition takes to enforce a no-fly zone seems to vary quite a bit.

In Iraq, for example, coalition air forces operated under fairly restrictive RoEs, so that they were forced to play cat-and-mouse with violators and only whittle away gradually at Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses. In Libya, in contrast, the U.N.'s broad authorization of "all necessary measures" gave NATO a lot of leeway [source: Robinson].


As a result, the first step in Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the 2011 mission was dubbed in the United States, was not a patrol, but an attack. On day one, U.S. Navy ships and a British unleashed a barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles on 20 Libyan military targets, crippling Gaddafi's radar, command-and-control infrastructure, and anti-aircraft missile installations. The goal was to "shape" the battle space to reduce the risk to NATO pilots who eventually would patrol it [source: Robinson, Knickerbocker].

After high-altitude U.S. pilotless, drone surveillance aircraft were sent in to assess the first day's damage, U.S. Navy radar-jamming aircraft began flying over Libya as an added measure to neutralize what remained of Gaddafi's air defenses and to prevent his small air force of aging 1960s-vintage fighter jets from getting into the air. At the same time, aircraft from the United States and other NATO forces began to pound Libyan military targets, with the aim of further reducing his ability to attack rebels and civilians [source: Robinson, Knickerbocker].

The air crews who actually patrol Libyan airspace have a complicated job. According to an article on NATO's Web site, they spend about four hours being briefed about the latest intelligence, studying weather data and the positions of other coalition aircraft, and preparing and checking their equipment and plane before taking to the sky. Once in the air, they receive a second intelligence update from surveillance aircraft, and then cruise around the area, watching for any planes to enter the no-fly zone. If one is spotted, they determine whether it is a "hostile" aircraft, or one that has simply entered the airspace by mistake. Before taking any action against the intruder, they generally must obtain clearance from a commander on the ground [source: Booth].

If the patrols follow the same pattern as they did in Bosnia, they'll typically stay in the air for four to five hours, refueling in flight if necessary [source: Booth].


How well do no-fly zones work?

A man sells copies of The Socialist Worker newspaper in London, as demonstrators protest against British involvement in a no-fly operation over Libya in 2011.
A man sells copies of The Socialist Worker newspaper in London, as demonstrators protest against British involvement in a no-fly operation over Libya in 2011.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Experts say that enforcing the Libyan flight ban over an extended period is likely to be a major challenge for NATO, since Libya covers 680,000 square miles (1,761,191 square kilometers). On the plus side, most of the population lives on 10 percent of the land, in a narrow region along the coast [source: France24]. A March 2011 analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated the cost of imposing a no-fly zone over the entire country for a six-month period at $3.1 billion to $8.8 billion [source: Harrison and Cooper].

Additionally, no-fly zones necessitate risks to NATO pilots. In Bosnia in 1995, U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady's F-16 was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Grady was forced to eject and parachute into Serbian-held territory. Relying upon his survival training, he spent six harrowing days evading Bosnian Serb pursuers, eating ants and catching rain in a plastic bag for drinking water. Fortunately, he was able to establish radio contact with a U.S. search plane, and eventually was rescued by a team of Marines [source: Fedarko].


In Iraq, Saddam Hussein reportedly offered a $14,000 reward in the late 1990s to anyone who could shoot down a coalition aircraft, but fortunately no one ever was able to collect [source: McGeary]. Even in Libya, where anti-aircraft defenses have been destroyed, NATO airplanes are still vulnerable to a lucky shot from shoulder-fired missiles. According to a Russian wire-service report, Gaddafi reportedly possesses 600 to 1,500 such weapons, and has been handing them out to supporters [source: RIA Novosti].

Critics of no-fly zones also question whether they actually achieve their intended purpose of preventing despotic regimes from killing their own people. In Bosnia, for example, the no-fly zone failed to prevent Bosnian Serb forces from laying siege to Srebrenica and massacring 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys there in 1995 [source: BBC News]. Additionally, in Libya, it remains unclear how effective the no-fly zone will be in deterring Libyan dictator Gaddafi from suppressing the rebellion. The regime's ground forces -- tanks, artillery and foreign mercenaries -- are still vastly superior in might to the largely untrained, poorly armed and disorganized opposition [source: England and Green]. As a result, some have criticized the no-fly zone as a halfway measure, and argued that the only way to prevent a slaughter is for the United States and its allies to invade Libya with ground forces and overthrow Gaddafi. But President Obama, in a March 2011 speech, nixed the military regime-change option, in part because it would exceed the U.N. mandate and would risk too many American lives. Additionally, such a move probably would not be supported by neighboring countries [source: Politico].

So for now, a no-fly zone will have to do.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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