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No-fly zone

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A no-fly zone, increasingly a tool of grand strategy,[1] is an imprecisely defined term in international law. Loosely, it is a politcomilitary operation analogous to a naval blockade, but focused on airspace rather than areas at sea. Well-known examples include those over northern and southern Iraq between the Gulf War and Iraq War, and over Kosovo. There have been proposals for making such a zone over Darfur, and, in March 2011, one is being put into place over Libya, Operation ODYSSEY DAWN.

Strategic context

At the level of grand strategy, a Congressional Research Service report observed that it is appropriate to formulate objectives including:[2] For any given situation, such “grand strategy” might include, in this order,

  • "a clear statement of the U.S. national interests at stake;
  • "a vision of the political endstate—the strategic-level outcomes—that would help secure those interests;
  • "a clear articulation of the major steps—the ways and means—including diplomatic, political, and economic as well as military, to be employed in order to accomplish the desired endstate, including the objectives each is designed to achieve; and
  • "a consideration of the nature and extent of political “risk” in the proposed approach — including the potential impact of proposed actions on the civilian population in the targeted country, on the region, on broader international partnerships, and on perceptions of the U.S. government both at home and abroad."

It may be useful to compare and contrast these grand strategic points with other criteria for military involvement, such as the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. At the level of military supporting grand strategy, the study continued to observe considerations: The military strategy designed to support the grand strategy, it has been suggested, might be based on these considerations:

  • "the operational-level military objectives that need to be achieved to support the overall grand strategy, and
  • "the extent to which a no-fly zone—as one set of ways and means—helps achieve those objectives. Recent operational experiences suggest that the establishment of a nofly zone, in itself, is unlikely to achieve the full set of military objectives, such as protecting a civilian population, let alone the grand strategic objectives, such as restoring or removing a regime."

Recent experiences do show that no-fly zones present many forms of political risk. While the Balkans operations, such as Operation DENY FLIGHT, were among the more successful in achieving goals, they ended with strategic strikes, Operation ALLIED FORCE, on critical targets not associated with air operations. This has been interpreted as meaning the Balkans no-fly operation was, at best, only a partial success. Nevertheless, the overall air campaign contributed to the achievement of NATO and U.S. goals.[3]

After many years, the no-fly zones over Iraq were problems for Saddam Hussein, but not decisive – and there was no short-of-war clear exit strategy once they were begun.

Other political costs can involve losses of pilots and equipment. Use of unmanned aerial vehicles reduces that risk, and the general technological superiority of the blockading force often dominates. Nevertheless, no plan survives contact with the enemy; even a radar-evading stealthy F-117 Nighthawk was shot down over Yugoslavia, although the pilot was recovered. Avoiding losses is one reason that a no-fly campaign usually begins with a strong SEAD campaign, and the rules of engagement often permit immediate action against ground-based air defense in the zone.

Operational context

Effective air blockades are far more complex to implement than news media may suggest. Implementing them takes several kinds of aircraft: air superiority fighters, electronic and kinetic attack aircraft for suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD), and command, control, communications and intelligence aircraft. All these aircraft will require huge amounts of fuel, and substantial spare parts and maintenance personnel – many modern aircraft need tens of hours of maintenance for every hour they fly. Bases are needed both for the actual aircraft and for their control and coordination. In practice, there usually must be decent transportation from seaport(s) to the operating locations.

Initial phases

If the no-fly zone is in range of aircraft carriers, initial patrols can come from there, but sustainable operations probably need major land bases with good transportation to them. This, for example, temds to rule out a no-fly zone for Darfur, since Chad, with little infrastructure and poor security, is the plausible base location.

Intelligence activities are needed to locate the regular bases and potential hiding areas for enemy aircraft and support facilities. It is rather standard doctrine to do extensive communications intelligence analysis to learn the patterns by which the opposing force operates, especially if they are allowed to fly in some areas but not others -- communications intelligence, along with radar surveillance, can warn when aircraft aloft are moving toward a probibited zones.

Intelligence aircraft, ground sensors, and personnel need logistic support.

Logistics usually requires a significant amount of air refueling. During Operation ALLIED FORCE in Kosovo, over 78 days of combat operations, tankers flew five thousand sorties to enable nearly 24,000 combat and combat-support sorties. Since the tankers are large aircraft that may not be able to use the same bases as fighters, it was necessary to stage tankers from bases as far away as France and Hungary. [4]

Air order of battle

Electronic order of battle

Air defense order of battle

Enemy logistics analysis


Physical attacks in a large-scale campaign usually begin with attacks against fixed command centers and supporting infrastructure. In the 1991 Gulf War, these attacks were carried out with BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers; Tomahawks alone seem to have been used in the 2011 operation against Libya.

This class of cruise missile is also effective against fixed air bases, and both runways and base facilities may be attacked in this phase.

Suppression of enemy air defense

For more information, see: Suppression of enemy air defense.

The suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) phase involves the suppression and destruction of the ground-based air defenses of the side upon the no-fly restriction is imposed. In general, it does not include action against enemy fighter bases or fighters, which is part of the offensive counter-air phase to be carried out, by aircraft, once enemy air defenses are suppressed.

SEAD operations involve both nonkinetic and kinetic fires. Electronic warfare, building on earlier electronic order of battle intelligence, will form a major part. The targets are:

Operations may continue against:

  • Communications
  • Command centers

Offensive counter-air

For more information, see: Offensive counter-air.

Continuing combat operations in a no-fly zone are part of classic offensive counter-air: patrolling and sweeps by fighters, challenging anything that flies. In the early parts of the operation, another part of offensive counter-air may take place: attacks on air bases and supporting facilities.

Operational experience



Immediately after the Gulf War, Operation PROVIDE COMFORT protected Kurdish people. It was succeeded by Operation Northern Watch, a Combined Task Force responsible for a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in Iraq and monitoring Iraqi compliance with UN Security Council resolutions 678, 687, and 688. It was headquartered at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

It began on 1 January 1997, and was reauthorized every six months by Turkey. The operation ended on 19 March 2003, when the Iraq War began.


Security Council resolutions 687, 688 and 949 also protected the Iraqi people of the south. A no-fly zone also was a safeguard against a renewal of Iraqi military action against Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The first mission was flown on 27 August 1992, and Operation SOUTHERN WATCH ended with the start of the full Iraq War.

From 2001 onwards, the task force carried out suppression of enemy air defense strikes as well as air patrols.

Serbia and Kosovo

A series of NATO operations, of increasing intensity, preceded the major air strikes.[5]


From 15 October 1992 to 12 April 1993, NATO aircraft observed a No-Fly Zone declared by the United Nations Security Council against flights by military aircraft of the warring factions over Bosnia during the fighting in Former Yugoslavia. SKY MONITOR is representative of early phases of a no-fly campaign, in which intelligence sensors learn the flight patterns of the force to be restrained.


Betwern 12 April 1993 amd 21 December 1995, NATO aircraft enforced the UN Security Council’s No-Fly Zone over Bosnia. Subsequent additions to Operation DENY FLIGHT included close air support to UN peacekeepers and air strikes in support of UN resolutions. 28 February 1994 marked NATO's first actual combat, when NATO aircraft downed four Bosnian Serb planes in the no-fly zone.

Operation DEADEYE

After a mortar attack caused heavy loss of life at a marketplace in Sarajevo, UN peacekeepers requested NATO airstrikes, in the form of a night of suppression of enemy air defense operations that began on 30 August against Bosnian Serb air defenses Again, this must be taken in context that SEAD is a prerequisite to both intense no-fly operations, and punitve strkes.


After bombing pause in August did not cause compliance by the Bosnian Serbs, Operation DELIBERATE FORCE attacked their command & control installations and ammunition facilities, in operations from 5 - 14 September 1995. These operations also degraded the Serbian ability to resist counter-air operations.


Air support was part of NATO’s first peace enforcement operation, conducted between 20 December 1995 - 20 December 1996.

Operation EAGLE EYE

At the request of the United Nations Security Council, NATO aircraft, between 30 October 1998 amd 24 March 1999, conducted aerial monitoring of the situation in Kosovo to verify Serb compliance with UN resolutions regarding a ceasefire and with NATO-Serb agreements regarding force reductions in Kosovo. The Serbs did not comply with these resolutions and agreements, and Operation EAGLE EYE ended when the Kosovo Conflict began.

Potential operations


There have been a number of proposals for a no-fly zone in the Darfur Conflict, but the logistics would be very difficult. Darfur is on the eastern border of Sudan, so any operations, not flying over other Sudanese territory, have to come from the east. There are no developed countries on the border, but the most plausible country for staging operations is Chad.

Chad and France have a long-term relationship and French military forces do operate there. It would be plausible to have French officers, therefore, in the key planning and operational roles. Darfur has its own insurgencies as well as spillover from Darfur, so base security would have to be provided.

Chad is landlocked. There is an oil pipeline to Cameroon, but it is only used for crude oil being exported. There is some refining capability in Chad, but it is not known if it could produce jet fuel. Otherwise, fuel probably would have to be trucked in from Egypt, over a long distance. Chad also borders Libya, but it is implausible that the present security situation would allow any useful Libyan participation.



The first combat phase of the March 2011 operation consisted of a wave of cruise missiles, apparently aimed at command and control facilities, as well as long-range SA-5 GAMMON missiles (DIA/NATO designation, Soviet designation S-200 Angara) in relatively fixed sites. Further preparation, using anti-radiation missiles, is plausible, to engage mobile radars and missiles (e.g., SA-6 GAINFUL/2K12 KUB ).

Most of the Libyan population, and thus many military targets, are within 10 miles/16 km of the seacoast, a situation quite different from distant landlocked areas such as Darfur. While the logistics of flying from aircraft carriers are still more significant than from land bases, their role could be much more effective than in more distant areas.

It has been suggested that Libya might be a test case for an "unmanned no-fly zone," something never formally tried but for which the particular geography of Libya might make possible. This proposal depends on the fact that most Libyan activity will be close to the coast, so ships could play a direct role. It cites two main technologies:


  1. Christopher M. Blanchard, Stephen Daggett, Catherine Dale, Jennifer K. Elsea, Richard F. Grimmett (18 March 2011), Jeremiah Gertler, ed., No-Fly Zones: Strategic, Operational, and Legal Considerations for Congress, Congressional Research Service
  2. Gettler et al., p. 1
  3. Michael V. McKelvey (March 1997), Air Power in MOOTW: A Critical Analysis of Using No-Fly Zones to Support National Objectives, Air Command and Staff College
  4. William J. Begert (Winter 1999), "Kosovo and Theater Air Mobility", Aerospace Power Journal
  5. NATO’s Operations 1949 - Present, North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  6. Luke Tarbi (17 March 2011), "An Unmanned No-Fly Zone is Possible", Small Wars Journal