A Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter aircraft of the Russian Northern Fleet's naval aviation is seen at the Severomorsk-3 airfield while performing training flights over the Barents Sea and the Kola Peninsula, Fe. 10, 2022.

A Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter aircraft of the Russian Northern Fleet's naval aviation is seen at the Severomorsk-3 airfield while performing training flights over the Barents Sea and the Kola Peninsula, Fe. 10, 2022. TASS via Getty Images / Lev Fedoseyev

Here's Why a Ukraine No-Fly Zone's a No-Go

NATO officials say it’s off the table, but there could be a “nuanced option.”

The White House this week shot down the notion of installing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, explaining that the United States will not put forces in potential combat with nuclear-armed Russia. That hasn’t stopped people from pushing for one—including the president of Ukraine and even a few former Supreme Allied Commanders Europe. So we asked someone who ran a no-fly zone about it.

“A no-fly zone is not something you just snap your fingers and it magically happens,” said David Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who in the late 1990s oversaw Operation Northern Watch over northern Iraq. “There are a lot of moving parts and pieces.”

On Tuesday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on President Biden to launch a similar effort to sweep the airborne component of the Russian invasion force from Ukrainian skies. The idea has been endorsed by Philip Breedlove, a former Supreme Allied Commander

But the Biden administration moved swiftly to dash the idea. On Monday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that using U.S. forces to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine would mean “potentially a direct conflict, and potentially a war with Russia, which is something we are not planning to be a part of." 

The Pentagon soon followed suit. On Tuesday, a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon, “President Biden has been exceedingly clear—U.S. troops will not be fighting in Ukraine, and that includes in the use of a no-fly zone.…There's no discussion about it here. There's no debating about it here. It's not something that we have to take to the NAC [North Atlantic Council] or NATO.”

Deptula said it would be even harder to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine than it was over Iraq. Such an effort would require hundreds of airplanes: combat fighter jets, aerial refueling tankers, intelligence aircraft, command-and-control planes, even search-and-rescue helicopters to recover downed pilots.

And long before aircraft started flying, policymakers would have to answer a host of questions, Deptula said. “What's the desired end state? What is it that you're doing this for? Who's the authorizing authority for engagement?” he said. Where, exactly, would U.S. aircraft seek to keep others from flying? When would they be able to use lethal force to stop them?

The rules of engagement must be incredibly detailed, spelling out Russian targets. This includes whether NATO fighters could strike Russian aircraft or surface-to-air missile sites on the ground. 

“You need to clearly define what the prerequisites are before you put this up,” Deptula said.  “Then there is the whole issue of the numbers that are required to do this.”

As Psaki said, setting up a no-fly zone could lead to NATO and Russian jets firing on one another, escalating the conflict and pitting nuclear-armed powers against each other in open combat. In 2016, such concerns kept U.S. leaders from declaring a no-fly zone over Syria.

But the ramifications go beyond the U.S. and Russia; an attack on a U.S. aircraft could embroil the entire NATO alliance.

“A no-fly zone established over Ukraine to prevent the Russians from flying over Ukraine would involve placing NATO forces directly in conflict with the Russians,” Deptula said. That could lead to NATO invoking Article 5, the treaty clause that an attack on one member is an attack on all members. 

A nuanced option

But Deptula said there could be a “nuanced option” that might permit a limited no-fly zone.

“If proposed by the [European Union] or the United Nations, if there was established a humanitarian exclusion zone from conflict in western Ukraine, one might posit that one could establish a no-fly zone there,” he said. “But you'd still want to have a degree of strategic ambiguity over who's going to enforce that to get around the complication of NATO and Russian forces directly engaging one another...But even that becomes difficult.”

No precedent

Compared to the hot war now going on in Ukraine, the late-1990s no-fly zone over Iraq was established in a far less intense environment. Combat jets did not fly 24/7 missions during Northern Watch, Deptula said. 

“We randomly went into northern Iraq for five to six hours, four or five times a week [and] that required about 50 to 60 airplanes,” he said. “If you're talking about covering all Ukraine, you're talking about hundreds of airplanes in a highly orchestrated and complex operation.”

Rajan Menon, a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, outlined other ways a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be different from those imposed over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and  Libya.

“What do all those countries have in common? They have nothing resembling Russia's airpower, and their nuclear weapons. And while Russia wouldn't respond to a no-fly zone with nuclear weapons, there has been a change in its nuclear doctrine,” Menon said, citing Putin’s veiled threat that intervention “will lead [the U.S. and NATO] to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” 

The United Kingdom has also ruled out the idea of a no-fly zone. 

“NATO is a defensive alliance. This is a time when miscalculation and misunderstanding are all too possible,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a Tuesday press conference in Estonia. “When it comes to a no-fly zone…in the skies above Ukraine, we have to accept the reality that that involves shooting down Russian planes….That’s a very, very big step. It is simply not on the agenda of any NATO country.” 

In Ukraine, Russia has not used all of its airborne firepower, and the Ukrainian military still has a functioning air force and air defenses, the senior defense official told Pentagon reporters Tuesday. 

“There's a certain risk-averse behavior, they are not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” the senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday. 

While the U.S. has been able to maintain visibility on the approximate number of missiles Russia has launched against Ukraine—400 as of Tuesday, with the bulk of those being short range ballistic missiles—officials don’t know how many missions the Russian air force has flown or the number of bombs it has dropped. The Pentagon believes Russia assembled about 75 fighter aircraft to attack Ukraine and has been able to confirm both Russian and Ukrainian aircraft losses.  Russia has more than 1,500 combat aircraft, according to Flight International

“The air picture, literally, it's very dynamic, and it changes constantly throughout the course of the day, you know, on who has who has more control or less control over a given bit of airspace,” the senior defense official said.”And there’s lots of airspace that simply isn't of concern to either Ukraine or Russia and so you don't see a lot of activity there.”

Jacqueline Feldscher contributed to this report.